Educators Frustrated by Plan to Uproot St. Paul students

Plans to close five schools in St. Paul and merge or consolidate 10 others drew a swift rebuke from union educators, who called the proposal heavy handed, shortsighted and disruptive to students and families.

Members of the St. Paul school board received the recommendations, generated through a realignment process called Envision SPPS, from district administrators during a special meeting Oct. 11.

The board is scheduled to take action on the proposals Nov. 16.

Officials can expect to hear plenty of public response before then, members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators said, after not doing enough to engage the community while putting together the plan.

First-grade teacher Annaka Larson said Envision SPPS working groups never convened a meeting with stakeholders at Wellstone Elementary, where she teaches in the Spanish dual immersion program. Staff were stunned to find out the school was among those slated to be closed.

“The idea that you would make a decision about the bilingual program without consulting teachers, without consulting families? It’s incredibly frustrating. We worked so hard to build that program,” Larson said.

Seeking the ‘correct alignment’

If the school board approves the Envision SPPS recommendations, Wellstone and four other elementary schools – Highwood Hills, Jackson, John A. Johnson and Obama – would close before the start of next school year. Obama would reopen as a magnet school after a remodeling project.

LEAP High School would also close next fall, and 10 other schools, mostly elementary, would merge or consolidate programming. Most of the impacted schools share a low “utilization rate,” meaning their enrollments fall well below their building capacities, compared to other schools in the district.

Administrators justified the upheaval as necessary to ensure students have access to specialists and enrichment opportunities, which smaller schools can’t always afford. Jackie Turner, SPPS’s chief of operations, pitched the plan to board members as a step toward right-sizing the district’s programming with its declining enrollment – a key factor in state and federal funding formulas.

“We need to make sure we have correct alignment,” Turner said.

Where’s the plan to grow?

Birth rates are declining in St. Paul. So, too, is the district’s “capture rate,” or the share of school-age children residing in the district who enroll in SPPS schools. In the 2012-13 school year, SPPS drew 67% of eligible students. It has since fallen closer to 60%.

But educators worry that uprooting hundreds of students – and drastically changing the learning environments of hundreds more – will prompt more families to consider open enrollment in another district or a charter school, draining more funds from SPPS and, ultimately, leading to another realignment down the road.

“I don’t think they’ve considered how these changes might push families further away,” said Peter Ratzloff, a science teacher at Galtier Community School, where students will relocate to Hamline Elementary as part of a merger.

Educators, Ratzloff said, want a plan to bring students back to SPPS, while it seems administrators “are just looking to make the numbers work.”

A step away from equity

The proposed realignment also raised equity concerns. SPFE President Leah VanDassor said Envision SPPS would leave programming in the city’s predominantly white neighborhoods mostly intact, while the East Side and West Side neighborhoods would see big disruptions.

“These buildings that are closing are the buildings that have, specifically, not been funded over the years, and now they’re being closed,” she said. “Chronic underfunding has brought us to where we are, and so has lack of foresight about how charter schools would impact our district.”

Those concerns have been echoed by labor-endorsed candidates for school board this fall: James Farnsworth, Halla Henderson, Clayton Howatt and Uriah Ward.

“If we accept this an equity issue, consolidating is a step away from that goal,” said Ward, a financial aid counselor at Augsburg University, during a candidate forum sponsored by SPFE this fall.

“There’s nothing equitable about shuffling students and closing schools,” added Henderson, a policy director at the MN Alliance with Youth. “When we’re taking resources away from our communities, all we’re doing is continuing to disenfranchise and defund communities that desperately need those resources.”

Farnsworth, a graduate of the district who works as director of the Highland Business Association, criticized the district for failing to work in partnership with staff and families on Envision SPPS.

“Families deserve upmost transparency,” he said. “The biggest thing that’s missing is any sort of real engagement structure in this.”

Howatt, a PTO president who works in construction, said the district needs a plan to increase enrollment, and it must include dealing with charter schools directly. He supports pushing a moratorium on new charters while experts study their impact.

“While SPPS is looking at closing elementary schools, two more charter schools are slated to open next year and another two or three the year after,” Howatt said. “This system of taking a limited amount of resources – our students, our tax dollars – and spreading it thinner and thinner, it makes no common sense.”

‘Mad and fired up’

Still, it’s likely decisions about Envision SPPS proposals will be made before new board members take office.

Educators and families, meanwhile, were already planning to push back at virtual public information sessions, scheduled by the district Oct. 26 and Nov. 8 from 6 to 7:30 p.m., and at listening sessions at the district office, 360 Colborne Ave., from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28 and Nov. 11.

After the initial shock of learning Wellstone could close, Larson said, staff members’ mood soon changed to “extremely mad and fired up.”

“There was a meeting for families that I listened into, and families were confused and angry as well,” she added. “Wellstone is such a welcoming place. We have a very diverse student body and a diverse group of educators. I don’t understand why the district would want to mess that up.”

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