Minneapolis

St. Paul Public Schools eyeing elementary school changes

2021-07-20 13:27:52 –

St. Paul Public Schools could recast elementary schools and potentially pare their numbers as it strives to give children equal access to what it describes as a “well-rounded education.”

That means providing opportunities in science and the arts in every building, and preschool, too, in the state’s second-largest district.

The planning, part of an ongoing project dubbed Envision SPPS, is a response, as well, to the district’s enrollment woes — making as-yet unspecified closings and mergers possible in schools it deems “unsustainable.”

“We do not need all of our elementary buildings,” Jackie Turner, the district’s chief operations officer, said.

The changes, if adopted by the school board later this year, would be phased in beginning in the 2022-23 school year and aided by a boost in federal funding. The district is using part of its $207 million in American Rescue Plan money to hire about 150 teachers, spokesman Kevin Burns said.

Information provided by the district in advance of a school board presentation Tuesday cites a challenge facing not just St. Paul but districts across the country: new births are on the decline, spelling trouble for school systems like St. Paul’s that focus on attracting kindergartners in competitive school-choice environments.

Births in the city have dropped from 5,933 in 2012-13 to 5,059 in 2019-20, the district said.

Data provided Monday did not include enrollment projections or specifics on how choice has impacted the district.

In 2017, the Star Tribune reported that nearly 30% of St. Paul’s school-aged children were attending charter schools or open enrolling to other districts. Since then, the number of charter schools within the city has increased. For its recently-approved 2021-22 school year budget, the district projected the loss of about 1,100 kids.

Turner said small elementary schools still require operational costs like those of larger schools — administrative staff, food services, transportation, heating and the like — but that without the same level of per-pupil revenue, inequities result.

Students, families and others are taking note.

When the 2021-22 budget was passed last month, students and their supporters decried the lack of art or music programs in some of the district’s poorer schools. Nikki Mechelke, a former PTO president at Horace Mann School in Highland Park, told the board then that her kids were fortunate to attend a school where the arts were a priority, and for which the PTO raised money, and it was unfair for all kids not to have the same programming.

On Monday, Turner said: “Right now, there are educational disparities in our system, and we want to remove those.”

Plans call for the district to partner with the NAACP to monitor equity and integration issues associated with any changes.

Envision SPPS was launched in February 2020 as a two-year project to match district facilities and resources with the programming families want and the district can afford. Merging and repurposing buildings were mentioned as potential outcomes at the start. Tuesday’s update includes findings from 11 work groups assigned to the project plus options to be considered as they dig in to make recommendations for the board to consider later this year — most likely in November or December.

Turner said she expects changes to involve a “minimal number of our elementary schools,” with potential impacts to some middle and high school programs they feed into. She said the district is not providing a list of schools deemed unsustainable for fear people will assume they’ll be closed when other options are available and will be reviewed.

The district had more to say about what’s meant by a well-rounded education.

“Building on a deep understanding of the core essentials of reading, writing and math, students are taught by educators with expertise in science, the arts (visual arts, music, dance, theater), and physical education while having access to an array of enrichment opportunities,” the district’s statement reads in part.

“In addition, in an ideal-sized school, there’s a team of staff to provide students with learning that is more personalized to their specific needs, while also addressing their social-emotional and health needs,” the district said. That would include a full-time nurse, counselor and social worker, and potentially staff dedicated to engaging with students and families from specific cultural backgrounds.

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