A kindergarten hokey pokey

District shuffling classrooms to deal with baby “boomlet”

A 2006 baby “boomlet” hits Minneapolis Public Schools next year, and district leaders are adding kindergarten classrooms at several school sites to accommodate the 5 year olds arriving next fall.

Whittier International Elementary School and Lyndale Community School in Southwest will get one new kindergarten classroom each for the 2011–2012 school year. The district also planned to add two kindergarten classrooms at Pratt Community School in South and one at Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center on the edge of Downtown to deal with what Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson described as “short-term enrollment challenges” during a May 3 School Board work session.

As an example of the challenges, the parents of about 150 incoming kindergarten students learned in May their preferred schools were full, and they would have to select another school. If the district was still “scrunched” in August, Johnson said she would consider adding half-day kindergarten classrooms at some sites.

District consultant Courtney Cushing Kiernat said requests for kindergarten placement in the district’s Zone 3, which includes most of Southwest and some South neighborhoods, jumped 10 percent this year. That was the biggest increase in any of the district’s three transportation zones.

That means Southwest’s space crunch is squeezing both ends of the K–8 spectrum. Over the winter, a district task force examined expanding area middle schools as enrollment reaches a critical point in grades 6–8

There are two factors at play, said David Dudycha, another district consultant working alongside Cushing Kiernat to plan for higher enrollments.

Dudycha used the term “boomlet” to describe the 2006 spike in local births to 6,442, an increase of about 320 births over 2005, which is the root cause of next fall’s outsized kindergarten class. At the same time, he added, Minneapolis Public Schools is attracting and retaining more students, particularly in Southwest, and many of them will be sixth-graders within the next few years.

Gaining K, losing High Five

Like in a round of hokey pokey, where you put something in and take something out, the new kindergarten classroom at Whittier means its High Five preschool classroom must move. It will relocate to the former Park View Montessori building in Bryn Mawr, where the district is creating one of two new Early Childhood Centers; the other is in the Longfellow Community School building in South, which, like Park View, saw its previous program close in 2010.

For some Whittier parents, including Kirsten Delegard, a member of the school’s leadership team, the move raises two concerns.

One is that theirs is the most-requested High Five program in the city and an entry point for low-income families, for whom some of the seats are reserved, into a school offering the highly regarded International Baccalaureate curriculum. On top of that, the K–5 school already is packed to “bursting” and can’t accommodate another class, Delegard said.

Cushing Kiernat said the district was opting for “flexibility” when it chose Whittier for one of the new kindergarten sites. As a magnet school, Whittier draws students from a wide area and can help relieve enrollment pressure across all of Zone 3.

She said district leaders “know we don’t have the room to have that kindergarten class go up through the grades,” but argued the pressure would ease through normal rates of student attrition.

“You can accommodate that bubble because it’s one class, one year,” Dudycha added. “And if you needed to, then you turn that [kindergarten classroom] into a first grade the following year.”

Still, Whittier parent Sara Strzok remained “really concerned that we don’t see that much attrition happening, and the building is already very, very crowded.”

Strzok asked if the district considered placing the extra classroom in another Zone 3 magnet. Cushing Kiernat said Whittier’s central location made it the logical choice.

The new kindergarten classroom at Lyndale seemed to be less controversial, in part because the school can take the extra students. Lyndale could accommodate 600–660 students, but had less than 400 this school year, Dudycha said.

The middle school crunch

Kindergarten is not the only grade where Southwest is feeling the crunch. Middle schools, already packed with students, expect to welcome even more in the next few years.

Already, plans are in motion to add extra classrooms at Anthony Middle School in the Kenny neighborhood.  But that may not solve the problem — albeit a very good problem, in the eyes of district leaders — of the district’s increasing market share.

In short, explained Dudycha, more Minneapolis families are choosing public schools over charters and parochial schools or open enrollment to a nearby district.

Now, the district is considering changes at Ramsey International Fine Arts Center, a K–8 magnet in Tangletown. Currently a magnet shared between transportation zones 2 and 3, the changes at Ramsey could reserve more seats for Zone 3 students.

“We have to look at the full spectrum,” Cushing Kiernat said. “Right now, the short-term focus has been kindergarten, because that’s where we know we’ve got increased enrollment right now, and we need those seats. The sixth-grade is more of a focus for 2012–2013.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected]