Big district changes without students changing schools

Downsizing plan aims to minimize disruption

Minneapolis Public Schools administrators will attempt to minimize the number of students forced to change schools during a major district restructuring in 2010.

That was the direction given by a majority of the School Board during a July discussion meeting, a meeting that also revealed deep divisions among board members on some aspects of the restructuring plan, known as Changing School Options. Administrators were expected to return to the board with another set of revisions this month.

It was the second time the School Board asked for changes to Changing School Options. School Board Chair Tom Madden pronounced the original version of the plan “DOA” in May.

Changing School Options aims to downsize the district, putting it on better footing to deal with declining enrollment and an expected budget shortfall of $14 million in 2010. To get there, the district will close schools, cut programs and reduce transportation costs by enrolling children in schools closer to their homes.

Of the three variations on Changing School Options presented in July, most board members preferred “Plan D.” That version limited the number of students who would switch schools to an estimated 4,920, about 23 percent of all students, while others would have 40 percent or more of students switching schools.

Plan D closes six schools, including Windom Dual Spanish Immersion and Open School in Southwest. But those school closures, and a list of proposed program changes that affected other schools, were among the most contentious parts of Plan D.

As things stood at midsummer, several of the major unresolved questions about Changing School Options had to do specifically with Southwest schools, including the future of the district’s Spanish immersion programs and the location of a new community school for the Lake Harriet and Kingfield neighborhoods.

A vote on the plan is now scheduled for September.

A site for Spanish immersion

Plan D calls for both Windom and Emerson Dual Spanish Immersion Learning Center on the edge of Downtown to close. Both programs would be consolidated into a new K–8 program at Anwatin Middle School in Bryn Mawr.

Board Member Pam Costain said uniting the schools — with the aim of improving the district’s Spanish immersion program — was a step in the right direction. But Costain and other board members questioned the decision to site the new program at Anwatin.

Board Member Lydia Lee noted Anwatin was going through the application process to become an International Baccalaureate school. A shift in the school’s mission now would threaten ties with families in the Bryn Mawr and Kenwood neighborhoods near Anwatin, Lee said.

Both Lee and Costain suggested Folwell Middle School in South Minneapolis, slated to close under Plan D, might be a better choice.

Windom parent Kevin McDonald said he was less concerned with the location of the Spanish immersion program than its survival. Still, McDonald questioned whether any single site would be big enough to support Spanish immersion.

Tracy Brokering, another Windom parent, was concerned student attrition between kindergarten and eighth grade might leave the middle grades with too few students for a viable program. Brokering and McDonald both preferred a two-site solution.

Searching for a community school

One of the most contentious issues in the Changing School Options debate has been finding a community school for Southwest’s Kingfield and East Harriet neighborhoods. No clear solution arose in July.

Both neighborhoods are in one of the district’s open areas where, because there is no assigned neighborhood school, families instead bus students into surrounding neighborhoods. Open areas were one factor driving the district’s unsustainable transportation costs.

Plan D proposed to assign students from both Kingfield and East Harriet to Lyndale Community School, just to the north. It remained a possibility, though, that Ramsey International Fine Arts Center, in Tangletown, could become their new community school.

The pitch from some open area parents to unite Lyndale and Barton Open School, creating a dual-campus K–8, seemed to be off the table.

David Weingartner, one of the parents who supported that idea, said he still had concerns about the capacity of Lyndale. After months of debate, though, Weingartner said he’d grown “agnostic.”

Most School Board members, too, seemed to throw up their hands at the July meeting, directing administrators to come up with the best solution.