What do parents want? St. Paul district bets on bigger, 'well-rounded' schools

·7 min read

Oct. 24—In August 2017, a month after Joe Gothard became superintendent, the school board heard a consultant's report on what it would take to win back students to St. Paul Public Schools.

Despite his predecessor's marketing campaigns and strategic plan focused on growing enrollment, the district had dropped to around 37,000 students from 41,100 a decade prior, and charter schools increasingly were eating into the district's market share.

The report's key recommendations were to pay less attention to standardized test scores and more to what parents want: "high quality, well-rounded academics that meet their individual child's needs and help that child reach their individual potential," and "safe schools and orderly learning environments."

The St. Paul district, Katie Sterns said in her report, wasn't doing well in either category.

ENROLLMENT DOWN ANOTHER 2,000 STUDENTS

Today, with enrollment down another 2,000 students, Gothard has seized on the promise of a well-rounded education as he looks to consolidate the district, closing eight buildings next fall.

"All the marketing materials in the world doesn't change the fact that we're not providing a well-rounded education for our students," Chief Operating Officer Jackie Turner told the school board earlier this month.

Although the district's secondary schools are relatively full, nearly one-third of its elementary school classrooms are empty — enough room for another 8,000 students.

For years, declining enrollment and shrinking budgets have forced school leaders to choose between keeping either their science teacher or art teacher, for example. A 2018-19 survey found nearly half of the district's elementary schools lacked a specialist in visual arts, and the same was true of music.

The district says an elementary school needs around 450 students — enough for three sections in each grade — to pay for those kinds of specialists, as well as a counselor, social worker and librarian.

Bigger schools can afford to pay for "the things that make school great," said Craig Anderson, executive director of teaching and learning, in a district video promoting the consolidation plan, "Envision SPPS." "If we can have a variety of classes in our schools, we have a better shot at catching the spark of a child."

UNHAPPY PARENTS

The consolidation plan, which the school board is expected to vote on Nov. 16, incorporates recommendations from Sterns' report and those of 11 work groups that have met over the past two years.

That's not to say everyone is getting their way.

A work group for Hmong Dual Immersion recommended moving to a single pre-K-8 building. Instead, the two elementary schools are merging, but the district is adding a third middle school site — at Parkway, which no longer will be a Montessori middle school — that offers not immersion but a Hmong language and culture curriculum.

Xang Her, a member of the Hmong Dual Immersion work group, said merging Jackson's Hmong program at Phalen Lake is not what the families wanted. He said the district has been fighting "a losing battle" with charter schools and neighboring districts for Asian-American students.

Turner said the multiple locations will offer greater potential to grow the program, perhaps by bringing Hmong students back to the district from charter schools.

"The Hmong families have been very consistent and vocal and patient to work with the district to get to a point where we can accommodate something they've asked for," she said.

Parents and students from some of the eight schools on the chopping block crowded into the school board meeting room on Tuesday, where public comment was cut off well before everyone had a chance to speak.

They touted the virtues of their schools and complained that the plan was drawn up by district administrators without input from those affected by it.

"Where was the conversation with the community prior to this plan?" said Heidi Johnson McAllister, parent of two students at Galtier elementary.

Turner said it wouldn't have been fair to ask the community to decide which schools would close. It's better, she said, to present a plan and then solicit feedback.

COMMUNITY SCHOOLS

Figuring out what parents want has proved difficult for the district.

Galtier was one of several magnet schools the district converted into community schools in 2013, under Superintendent Valeria Silva's strategic plan, "Strong Schools, Strong Communities."

The hope was that neighbors would rally around their local schools, rich with parent involvement.

But in a metro area with plenty of school options, including tuition-free charter schools and open enrollment to neighboring districts, St. Paul's community schools languished.

In 2015, the district identified its four most under-enrolled schools compared to building capacity and kicked off an enrollment campaign with ads, brochures and meet-and-greet events with principals.

All four of those schools — Galtier, Hamline, Cherokee Heights and Riverview — now are set to close or merge under Gothard's plan.

MONTESSORI, IMMERSION

The district's own schools of choice have had a mixed track record in the past decade.

On the West Side, Cherokee Heights was battling declining enrollment when the district turned it into a Montessori school in 2016, citing the 267 students on waiting lists at other Montessoris in the district.

The new approach didn't work. Enrollment fell from 274 in Cherokee's final year as a community school to 161 last fall. Next year, Cherokee is set to merge with J.J. Hill Montessori, which is down 46 students since 2016.

Parkway, the district's only Montessori middle school, opened in 2013 following a renovation. It struggled to find licensed teachers and failed to draw Montessori elementary students from throughout the city, starting last school year with just 290 students.

The Parkway building used to be home to L'Etoile Du Nord French Immersion, which was divided into two campuses in 2013.

Once a strong program, it lost 40 percent of its 600 students in seven years, and now is set to merge once again at the upper campus, with support of the families.

In a way, L'Etoile Du Nord was a victim of its own success. The popularity of language-immersion magnets inspired the district to create Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion, which started inside Hamline Elementary and got its own building in 2018.

Turner said the fall of French immersion coincided with the rise of Mandarin.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

While making plans for the future, district leaders have spent some time contemplating what brought them to the point where a drastic consolidation is needed.

The proliferation of charter schools — especially those that cater to a particular ethnicity — gets mentioned the most, along with declining births in the city.

But there's a long list of events or district initiatives in the past decade that have turned off segments of the city. The district's own list of "contested decisions," shared as part of a presentation Tuesday, included:

— The 2013 adoption of a racial equity policy. It brought mandatory training that asked staff to confront their own biases; efforts to reduce suspensions, especially among Black students; and moved students with significant behavior problems into mainstream classrooms.

— School start time changes in 2019, which moved elementary schools earlier and secondary schools later in the day.

— A four-day teacher strike in March 2020.

— And starting the 2020-21 school year with distance learning.

Not mentioned were high-profile incidents of violence in schools, including a student's 2015 lunchroom attack on a Central High teacher; the 2020 removal of school resource officers from high schools; or mask mandates that continue today.

In the presentation Tuesday, the district identified another possible cause of declining enrollment that's received only passing mentions in previous board meetings: the 2013 arrival of class-size limits, which the teachers union bargained for as part of its contract.

The district's research director, Stacey Gray Akyea, described how the limits may have curtailed growth in popular schools and accelerated declines in others, especially language-immersion schools that rarely accept students who haven't attended since kindergarten.

When class-size caps force students onto wait lists at schools of choice, families start to look elsewhere. And with 229 free public schools in Ramsey County alone, up from 206 in 2013-14, there are plenty of places to look.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting