McLeod West students' tough choice: Where to go next year

High School students
Thirteen McLeod West High School students discussed their school's closing at the UBS Forum at Minnesota Public Radio on Jan. 30. Photographed are: (top row L-R) Corey McCoy, Tom Plendl, Lindsey Randt, Paige Sikkila, Ashley Rickheim, Ellen Klabunde, & Courtney Schlenner; (front L-R) Andrew Knaak, Ashley Cramb, Jenna Schwing, Lukas Neubarth, Molly Geier, & Dylan Schwarz
MPR photo/Tom Weber

It's been that kind of year for the students, as represented by Molly Geier's jacket. The sophomore's pins and varsity letters for sports and academics are impressive, but you quickly notice they're from three schools.

Bus arrival
McLeod West's high school students don't actually arrive at their home school until about 2:00 every afternoon; they spend their mornings at nearby GFW High School because part of the McLeod school building was condemned in August.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

McLeod West is so broke, it can't offer the sports Geier wants to take. So last fall, she ran cross country for Glencoe-Silver Lake (GSL); this spring she'll run track for Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop (GFW).

"This [past] fall I got on a bus, went over to GFW, got back on a bus, went back to McLeod West for two hours," noted Geier. "Then I got back on a van to go over to GSL, and now I'm going to be doing that for track."

And Geier isn't alone. All high schoolers do mornings at G.F.W., then return to McLeod West for two afternoon classes. Part of McLeod's building was condemned this year - leaving not enough room for everyone.

"My parents got to graduate from there and my grandparents, and my sister, and I don't get to?"

Sometimes it's hard to concentrate, says Sophomore Jenna Schwing.

"It feels like the end of the day when you leave G.F.W.," she noted. "You get to go home, but surprise. Two more hours."

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Such is life for the students of McLeod West during the district's final year.

School leaders said the district would have to close if a referendum failed in November - and failed it did.

So now, a plan working its way through the approval process would split the district between three neighboring districts. But that's a decision to be ironed out on paper. The students' decision - where to go next year - is much more personal.

District map
This map, located in an office shared by both the superintendent and principal, shows the current McLeod West School district, as well as lines that denote how the boundaries will be split among three neighboring districts.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

Thirteen McLeod students recently visited Minnesota Public Radio's studios in St. Paul. Sitting in a half-circle in the UBS Forum, they revealed their choices: Six will go to G.F.W.; three will go to GSL; two are undecided; and the final two are seniors who will be among the last conferees of a McLeod West diploma.

The students all say they're choosing based on where their friends plan to go, not on any scale of which school is better academically.

Sophomore Dylan Schwartz is not quick to make friends, he says, and was bullied at a previous school before coming to McLeod in the third grade.

"When I came to McLeod West, it was kind of like a revolution to my life because I actually made some friends," he said.

When asked if he thinks things might get bad again at a new school next year, he replied no.

McLeod West school
The only building in the McLeod School District, in Brownton, is partially condemned. That means high school students have to take most of their classes at a nearby school.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

"Because I'm probably going to GFW and most of my friends going there also, so I'll actually have someone to talk to."

Dylan seems ready for the transition, but everyone adjusts at different rates. The election that sealed McLeod's fate was three months ago, but it's still hard for sophomore Paige Sikkila to talk about.

"When I found out that night I was just crying - I can't even talk about it because I don't want to be away from these guys," Sikkila said, while holding back tears. "I like teachers at McLeod West. I've been there and my parents got to graduate from there and my grandparents, and my sister, and I don't get to?"

The students who visited MPR were in St. Paul for the day. Their trip included the Minnesota History Museum, where they practiced their research skills for an upcoming project they're doing on the history of their school district.

Discussing the end
McLeod West sophomores (L-R) Ashley Rickheim, Courtney Schlenner, and Ellen Klabunde listen during a discussion in the UBS Forum of Minnesota Public Radio. Thirteen McLeod West high schoolers visited MPR to discuss their school's closing.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

But the students already have a grasp of the districts history, through their friends and generations of family.

"Growing up with them, watching graduations - we always dreamed of walking across that stage and graduating as Falcons together and we can't do that anymore," noted a teary Jenna Schwing. "It really hurts."

The administrative stuff needed to finalize the McLeod consolidation will also need voter approval. That election will likely be held in the middle of May - right around the time Molly Geier is preparing to compete in the track sectionals for a neighboring team, and just a couple weeks before the last day of school at McLeod West.