Now, it’s about growth

After a decade of decline, the plot has changed for public schools

For a decade, a dominant storyline in Minneapolis Public Schools was declining enrollment. Between 2000 and 2009, the district shed 15,000 students, about a third of its population.

Recently, there’s been a twist in the plot. Now, just two years after the School Board voted to shutter four schools, the district is scrounging for additional classroom space.

Two or even three closed schools may reopen next fall. A September School Board vote set the district on track to spend $27 million to expand two overcrowded K–8 campuses by 2014. And next month the board is expected to consider a package of “near-term enrollment strategies” that will shake up the district for the second time in two years.

The changes may be easier for district families to take this time, though, now that the conversation has shifted to growth from decline.

“The CSO was doing a lot in a short amount of time, and I think it was inevitable we would miss something,” said School Board Member Lydia Lee, using the acronym for Changing School Options, the 2009 cost saving plan that closed schools and redrew school attendance boundaries. “And, at the same time, it’s hard to predict [enrollment trends].”

Lee described an era of instability for the district ushered in by the 1990s charter school movement and open enrollment, both of which siphoned off thousands of students from Minneapolis Public Schools. Changing School Options was described as “right-sizing” a district that could afford fewer schools and bus routes.

“We were almost in a panic situation,” Lee recalled.

Change in direction

Just five months after the plan took effect in September 2010, district officials already were examining an enrollment boom about to hit Southwest-area middle schools. This fall, the focus was on a so-called “baby boomlet” bringing an influx of kindergarten students.

Not only are there more school-age children in Minneapolis these days, more are attending public schools. That’s the conclusion of district officials, bolstered by both their own enrollment data and the results of the 2010 Census.

The district projects K–8 enrollment could increase 2,030–3,300 students by 2015, with the majority of that growth happening in Southwest. This part of the district, known as Area C or Zone 3, will add 550–900 K–5 students and 650–1,000 6–8 students by 2015, according to district projections.

District consultant David Dudycha said the economy might be one factor in the enrollment gains, by pricing some families out of private schools, for instance. A shaky housing market seems to have disrupted a long-term trend that saw young families leave the district for the suburbs, Dudycha added.

Some think the district’s return to a community school model through CSO may be a factor, too. The plan redrew attendance boundaries so that more students would attend schools closer to home, and attempted to clarify the pathways students follow from elementary to middle to high school.

“I think [families] liked some of the changes,” Lee said.

Burroughs Community School Principal Tim Cadotte said district growth “has a lot to do with community schools,” and suggested some families may be responding to the “old-fashioned concept that we’ve come back to.”

The Changes

If that’s the case, the district managed to attract and retain families despite the considerable angst caused by CSO. The district’s proposal for another round of changes has not drawn the level of protest seen in the summer of 2009 in Southwest.

The most significant change may be the creation of a new middle school out of the K-8 Ramsey International Fine Arts Center. The district proposes to move Ramsey’s entire fine arts program to a reopened Folwell Middle School.

The new school would 
draw students from the Burroughs and Lyndale 
community school areas, relieving pressure on crowded Anthony Middle School.

Searching for extra seats in the Jefferson Community School enrollment area, the district proposes to convert the school to a K–5 from a K–8, rerouting the middle grades students to Anthony. But the district will consider a counter-proposal developed by Jefferson’s site council that involves carving more classroom space out of the existing building and keeping older students in the school.

In the Lake Harriet Community School attendance area, which was under enrollment pressure for years before CSO, the School Board is moving ahead with a proposed $11 million expansion of the lower campus.

“A lot of what we’re doing is risk management,” explained Courtney Cushing Kiernat, explaining the changes during a meeting at Jefferson. “If the economy changes will this all change? We don’t know.”

Enrollment growth 
outside of Southwest

Most of Minneapolis Public Schools’ enrollment growth is concentrated in Southwest, but the district is taking steps to deal with an increasing student population in other parts of the city, as well.

The district plans to reopen two school buildings in South: Folwell Middle School, closed in 2009, and Howe Community School, closed in 2005. The district predicted K–8 enrollment in that area, known as Zone 2, would grow by 650–1,050 students by 2015.

The reopening of Folwell was expected to help alleviate student capacity issues in Southwest, or Zone 3, as well, by housing a relocated Ramsey International Fine Arts Program and allowing that building to be converted into a new Ramsey Middle School (see main story).

In September, the School Board authorized district staff to select the architect who will design a proposed $16-million expansion of Lake Nokomis Community School’s Keewaydin campus, creating an additional 180 K–8 classroom seats.

The district could free up another 75 middle-school seats district-wide by expanding Zone 2’s Wellstone International High School to include middle-grades students in a new, 6–12 program called International Newcomers School designed for English-language learners.

The projected growth is slowest in the district’s Zone 1, which includes North, Northeast and Bryn Mawr. Most of the additional 180–350 K–8 students are expected to show up in Northeast schools.

In North, the district is mainly altering grade configurations and the pathways students follow from school-to-school, not creating additional classrooms seats. But in Northeast, the district proposes to create an additional 250 K–5 seats by adjusting the grade configuration at Sheridan Global Arts and Communications School to a K–5 program from a K–8, using extra capacity at Northeast Middle School to house Sheridan’s middle-grades students.

Alternately, the district could keep Sheridan a K–8, and instead reopen a third closed Zone 1 school building, either Tuttle Community School or Webster Open Elementary, as some community members have suggested.