A good problem, but no easy solutions

Minneapolis prepares for increased K–8 enrollment

Minneapolis Public Schools has a “good problem.”

That’s what district consultant Courtney Cushing Kiernat likes to call the significant increase in K–8 enrollment expected over the next four years. Finding the space to put those new students — of particular concern in already crowded Southwest schools — is the problem Kiernat and a small taskforce of administrators have been working on since last school year.

To keep this good problem from going bad, the district is engaging parents in ways that, to some, feel different than the lead-up to the last major reorganization of Minneapolis schools. Approved by the School Board in 2009 and put into effect last school year, the Changing School Options plan redrew attendance area boundaries to keep students closer to home and cut down on transportation costs.

It also closed some schools and programs, sparking protests by district families.

“I heard a lot of the anger” — said Kiernat, who didn’t develop the Changing School Options plan but joined the district to help implement it — “so our team has really wanted to have this be a dialogue or a discussion.”

The taskforce engaged district parents through a series of information sessions over the summer, including one held Aug. 9 at the district’s Mona Moede building in North, where about 35 parents gathered for four hours to tackle some of the trickiest problems of the enrollment crunch, including David Weingartner, whose daughter attends Lyndale Community School. Compared to Changing School Options, this time around the process felt more “collaborative” to Weingartner.

“The previous efforts were more of a, ‘Here’s a PowerPoint, here are the problems, send us an e-mail,’” he said.

If the process is different, the results are almost certain to be, too. When a plan comes to a School Board vote — probably this fall — it may include re-opening at least one of the school sites closed less than two years ago, like Folwell Middle School.


Growth at the bottom

Declining enrollment and diminishing resources were the two primary factors that drove Changing School Options. What has changed since the School Board adopted that plan in the fall of 2009 is the enrollment picture.

While total district enrollment continues to decline, the pace has slowed in recent years. And most of the losses are coming at the top — the high school grades — while the bottom is swelling.

The 32,000-student district now expects K–5 enrollment to grow by 1,400–1,700 students between 2010 and 2015. Middle grades (6–8) enrollment could increase by 700–800 students over the same five-year period.

District consultant David Dudycha identified two trends propelling the increase: a recent spike in local births coupled with higher district retention rates. Not only are there more students in Minneapolis, more of them are staying in Minneapolis Public Schools instead of choosing charters, private schools or schools in suburban districts.


Uncertainty

Why is the district hanging onto more students? Dudycha suspects uncertainty in the economy and the sluggish housing market are both factors discouraging young families from moving out of the city to the suburbs.

But predicting how each of those trends plays out in coming years is no easy task. Further complicating the district’s planning process is what Dudycha called “the elephant in the room”: state integration funding, a major component of district finances, may be on the chopping block in two years when the Legislature starts planning the next biennial budget.

The integration funds support Minneapolis’ Choice is Yours program, through which about 2,000 city students attend suburban school districts. Any change to Choice is Yours could significantly change the enrollment picture in North Minneapolis, which is still predicted to lose or gain very few students while district schools in South and Southwest neighborhoods see the major enrollment gains.

Uncertainty about demographics and funding are just part of what makes planning for increased K–8 enrollment so complicated.

As the Aug. 9 brainstorming session made clear, any change — a shifted school boundary, a relocated program — can ripple through the district, impacting hundreds or thousands of families. And the district’s commitment to equity requires the results be balanced geographically.


Ambassadors

By inviting parents into the planning process early, the district is hoping for another type of “ripple effect,” said Jim Liston, another member of the enrollment taskforce.

“That’s part of what we’re trying to do,” Liston said during the Aug. 9 meeting: give highly connected parents a deep understanding of the enrollment situation so that they can help other parents “understand the complexities.”

Among those parents was Scott Bordon, who shared some of what he learned with another Lyndale Community School parent during a weekly summer play date on the school’s playground.

“One of the first responses is, ‘Oh no, not again,’” Bordon said. But, he added, that particular conversation ended with the other parent understanding at least a bit more about the tough decisions ahead.

Kiernat called them parent “ambassadors,” and if this district reorganization goes down easier than the last, they could be the difference.

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com.