Crowd urges school board to keep schools open

Large crowd
A large crowd showed up at the Minneapolis school board meeting Tuesday night to protest the board's plans to close several schools on the city's north side.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

The mood was serious as people filled the auditorium at Patrick Henry High School on Newton Avenue. Many carried protest signs.

As the hearing began, community members lined up for their chance at the mic. Deidre Hollis has two children at Jordan Park school. She was one of many parents who came to show their opposition to the closings.

"I believe it would be a travesty to the students, families and the staff if these doors are shut", said Hollis. "Please do not close Jordan Park. We are a community. We are sticking together, and we are going to stand up. Do not close our schools".

The Keyes family
Markeeta Keyes has her son in public school in Minneapolis, while her daughter attends a private school.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

The list of closings includes both elementary and K-8 schools. In North Minneapolis, there are five: Jordan Park, Davis Academy, Lincoln, North Star and Shingle Creek. The sixth is Tuttle Elementary in Southeast Minneapolis.

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The closures are part of a plan called the Northside Initiative. In addition to closing schools, the plan would require a core curriculum of math, reading, writing, science and social studies at all remaining schools. It also includes full-day kindergarten, languages, fine arts and music and additional advanced placement courses.

Officials say they hope these improvements will stop the flow of Northside students out of the public school system. Since 2000, the district has lost half its enrollment as more and more students transfer to suburban, public, private and charter schools. District schools have space for 50,000 students but only 36,000 are enrolled. And that number is expected to drop below 30,000 over the next four years.

The loss of students has left many Northside schools struggling. And test scores are lagging. Compared with students across Minneapolis, Northside students scored lower on recent math and reading tests. District officials say the money saved by closing schools will be funneled into closing that achievement gap.

Teaches at Jordan Park
Lily Rothbart teaches special education at Jordan Park, one of the schools on the list for closure.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

After testifying, Jordan Park special education teacher Lily Rothbart said she has her doubts.

"Six schools is too drastic, and it deprives certain neighborhoods of a school completely. Families, if they're already exodusing from the Minneapolis public schools and their students have nowhere planned to go it will be a hemorrhage leaving the district. So if the district is hoping to actually fix a problem and not just save money for something, this isn't the way to do it", Rothbart said.

Many parents complained that the plan seems rushed. One after another said they had only just found out about it, and that the district hasn't given enough thought to what comes next.

Markeeta Keyes has similar concerns even though she didn't testify. She has a son in public school at Davis Elementary and a daughter in private school. Keyes said she found out about the plan when she saw a flier. She went to the district's website but said the information wasn't as helpful as she'd hoped.

"Online there's this huge demographic information about how they came to the results, these different scenarios for closing five schools versus four schools, but there wasn't an agenda for how this plan could work to improve the schools. There was just ideas, statements," said Keyes. "There was no set agenda. There's nothing in place so it's just kind of like, okay maybe it'll work, but maybe it won't". The timing of the hearing two days before the vote was another common complaint. Board members faced a wave skepticism that they would amend the plan, given that there are only two days left before the vote.

School board members didn't respond to the testimony, saying they were there to listen. Afterwards, school board chair Pam Costain defended the process. She said the district has done a good job of communicating with parents. She said she regrets that some parents still feel left out of the process but that fast action is needed. Costain said the board decided to hold the hearing so close to the vote so that parents' concerns would be fresh in board members' minds.

"I feel sorry that parents feel that way, but from the district's point of view I feel like we've done what we felt like we could," Costain said. "Although I will admit it's been a very tight time frame, but frankly the Minneapolis public schools are in crisis and they have to act".

Parent Markeeta Keyes said even though she's unhappy with the way the closings were announced, she's willing to give the plan the benefit of the doubt. She likes not paying for two children in private school. And she likes the program her son is getting in public school.

"I've looked into it, and I would hope that if they do close they would be able to offer more programs to the kids, smaller class sizes. The classroom he's in now is over 26 students and that is just way too much for a kindergarten classroom," Keyes said. "I wasn't exactly pleased anyway with the scores and the gap in achievement, but I'm hoping if they do close them they'll be able to offer the kids better opportunities".

The school board will vote on the school closings Thursday night. In May, the Board of Education will hold a Northside School Expo to help parents understand their school options.