Charter schools force painful public school closings

Parents and children rally before a St. Paul School Board meeting demanding that Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary not be closed.
Photo by Abena Abraham / SPFE

Parents and students fight St. Paul retrenchments

Critics of the plan to close or merge several St. Paul public schools argue that making the move without significant community engagement risks alienating the families the City is trying to  get to stay.

In a bid to combat declining enrollment and competition from charter schools, Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) officials created Envision SPPS, a proposal to close or merge 11 schools by next fall. Officials say consolidating resources from under-enrolled schools allows them to offer well-rounded education programs where students have access to more specialists and enrichment opportunities.

“It is not a result of the pandemic, and it is not a major cost-saving measure for the district,” said St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard at the October 11 board meeting announcing Envision SPPS.

“While it will create some efficiencies,” Gothard said, “at its core it’s about making our schools sustainable with the ability to offer robust and culturally responsive curriculum and with staff who are able to deliver on the promise we make as a district to inspire students to think critically, pursue their dreams, and change the world.”

The proposed changes would impact nearly 3,000 students, and at higher rates for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students than are represented in the district at large, according to the data presented at the board meeting. 

SPPS Chief Operation Officer Jackie Turner said staff weighed potential equity and accessibility concerns when forming their recommendations. She said the sites of closed buildings could be repurposed to meet other community needs, like early childhood hubs and a Hmong dual-immersion middle school.

SPPS board members will vote on Envision SPPS on November 16. The vote, Turner said, must accept or reject the proposal in its entirety.

Tseganesh Selameab chose to place her three children at Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary, a magnet school in the North End neighborhood, for its cultural diversity and Spanish dual immersion program. She said she was shocked to learn just weeks earlier that their school was slated to close, despite adequate enrollment levels by SPPS standards.

“We are an integral part of that neighborhood, and the neighborhood is struggling,” she said. “Taking away this sustainable school in the middle of that also seems like it would do more harm to the community than good.”

Selameab said she is concerned that a school closure would require her children to go far outside the neighborhood for a similar program, extending their bus ride from 30 minutes to an hour.

Courtesy of Wellstone PTO

St. Paul resident Michelle Higgins has a granddaughter at Barack and Michelle Obama Elementary School. Higgins opposes the proposal, which she says targets schools based in Communities of Color that are chronically underfunded.

 “I was impressed at the fact that [Obama Elementary] understood that it was important to start teaching African American history to our babies in elementary school,” said Higgins. “But literally within two years, the class was gone because budgets have been cut and they had lost funding.”

Envision SPPS would also close LEAP High School, a school for English language learners new to the country. SPPS officials say they want to ensure college readiness and full access to opportunities by integrating students into traditional high schools. Like Higgins, LEAP students contend that the proposal underestimates the value of social and emotional support that comes with being in community. 

“All the English I know now is thanks to every [LEAP] teacher that taught me [when I was in school],” said former student Brenda Bautista at a virtual information session on October 4. “I came to this country not knowing my ABCs, my 1-2-3. I sat in one of those classrooms holding to go to the bathroom because I didn’t even know how to ask.”

Bautista said LEAP offers the flexibility for older students and those working to support families abroad to also succeed academically.

At the heart of the issue are questions around school choice and racial integration. A 2013 report by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity said that “student losses to charter [schools] account for 50 to 60 percent of total enrollment declines [in the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools districts] in the last decade.” 

Families opting for charters take public funding with them, in turn leading public school systems in cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul to make difficult decisions to ensure sustainable education programs.

“We’re potentially going to see even more people choose charter schools in the coming year, depending on how this all breaks down,” said Saint Paul Federation of Educators President Leah VanDassor.

VanDassor said the St. Paul school district harmed relationships with parents by not involving them in shaping the proposal and not offering more guidance on what might happen if their schools close.

“Education is an investment. We cannot look at it as it’s costing us something. The cost will be in the effect. They’re gonna close down schools; that will cost us.”

For more information about Envision SPPS, questions or comments, or to find future public information sessions and board meeting dates, go to spps.org/envision.

Feven Gerezgiher welcomes reader responses to feven.gerezgiher@gmail.com.

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