Middle schools are packed and preparing for more

A district task force supports expansion at Anthony

A surge of students is working its way through Southwest elementary schools, and Minneapolis Public Schools officials are searching for ways to accommodate the students soon to arrive in two middle schools.

The solution could involve building an addition onto Anthony Middle School, 5757 Irving Ave. S., for the 2013–2014 school year. But a district task force has not ruled out other changes, such as altering the pathways students follow from elementary to middle schools or redrawing the transportation boundaries for some Southwest schools.

After a decade of precipitous enrollment declines in Minneapolis, growing schools “are a really positive thing,” said Courtney Cushing Kiernat, who serves on the task force led by Associate Superintendent Theresa Battle. “But it is also painful because parents … feel unsettled.”

Cushing Kiernat managed recent pathway and transportation boundary changes made under a district cost-saving plan known as Changing School Options, or CSO. That the district may have to revisit those issues so soon is a disappointment to some parents, said David Weingartner of East Harriet, who has a daughter in third grade at Lyndale Community School.

“The whole point of CSO was to create stability and pathways and to get students (in schools) closer to home,” Weingartner said. “It was supposed to be a five-year plan and it turned out to not even be a five-month plan.”

“That’s frustrating for families who were affected by CSO,” he added.

‘Feeder’ schools

The surge of elementary students also was testing the capacity of some Southwest K­–8 schools. But it was felt most acutely at Anthony, a 6–8 middle school, where enrollment jumped to 749 students this fall from 600 students last school year.

District spokesperson Emily Lowther said preliminary estimates for next fall indicated Anthony enrollment could increase by another 80 students. Enrollment at another choice for some Southwest families, Anwatin Middle School, was up to 551 students this year from 449 students last year, but was not expected to grow much next fall, Lowther said.

Still, it’s the number of students on the way that have some Southwest families nervous and district administrators making plans.

Cushing Kiernat identified three “big feeders” to Anthony driving the enrollment boom: Burroughs and Kenny community schools and Armatage Montessori school. Each has seen student populations grow by 30–40 percent since the 2004–2005 school year, when this year’s crop of middle school students was in kindergarten, first and second grade.

Changing School Options also routed the growing Kenwood and Lyndale community schools into Anthony, a change widely criticized as unsustainable even before it won School Board approval in the fall of 2009.

“I know about the ‘I told you so’ (argument) and I totally understand,” Cushing Kiernat said. “The challenge is with restricted budgets we don’t have the dollars to bus kids all over the place. We don’t have as many options anymore … to deal with capacity.”

Studying growth

The district made one change to relieve the pressure on Anthony earlier this school year, when it switched Whittier International Baccalaureate School’s pathway to Anwatin from Anthony.

Anwatin Site Council Co-chair Diane Mullin said she emphasized the school’s relatively “comfortable size” — as well as its International Baccalaureate and Spanish-language immersion programs — to families considering their middle school options for next fall. But even if more families opted into Anwatin, Southwest would still face a middle school crunch.

“Anwatin cannot be the release valve,” Cushing Kiernat said, noting Anwatin, too, “has hit its limits” for accommodating new students.

She said the possible Anthony addition in 2013 was the subject of an ongoing district feasibility study. The Southwest middle school task force was recommending the addition raise building capacity to 950 students, she said.

Anthony site council member Seth Kirk, whose daughter is in the sixth grade, said school capacity had not yet reached a “critical” stage.

“Certainly, you could put too many kids in a building, and I think 1,000 kids would be too many,” Kirk said.

Cushing Kiernat said detailed census data to be released later this year would guide the task force in its plans for Southwest. Also critical to decisions about middle schools will be the district’s Master Facilities Plan, a document long in development that will guide plans for district buildings for years to come.