Minneapolis schools in line for major overhaul

Opposing school changes
Mary McKelvey (center, with bullhorn), president of the Armatage School PTA, speaks to a rally outside Washburn High School on Monday, Sept. 15, 2009. The group gathered to oppose plans by the Minneapolis School District to change Armatage from a part-community, part-magnet school to an entirely magnet school.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The Minneapolis School Board will vote tonight on a plan called "Changing School Options," which will close some buildings, reorganize others, and change busing.

Some parents, students and other community members have spoken out against certain aspects of the plan, including the closure of some schools.

Emerson School, a few blocks from Loring Park, is a Spanish immersion school. The students who attend Emerson will move to another building next fall, at a site where Anwatin and Bryn Mawr schools are located. The current Emerson location is one of seven district buildings that will close.

The entire plan is an effort by the district to run a tighter ship. And with declining enrollment, this ship will need fewer buildings.

Emerson parents like Kari Raasch say moving isn't the issue. She's more worried about co-locating.

"It's not just moving a program; it's diluting it and ruining it," said Raasch.

Co-locating is the district's term for putting two smaller schools in one big building. Right now, Emerson Spanish is alone in its building, which parents say helps learning because hallway and lunchroom chatter usually stays in Spanish.

Minneapolis Superintendent Bill Green
Minneapolis Superintendent Bill Green, speaking in his office about the Changing School Options plan. The Minneapolis School Board will vote on the plan Tuesday night.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Emerson, though, would share space next year with Bryn Mawr, a school where classes are mostly in English. That's what worries Raasch.

"A child that's trying to learn Spanish -- all they're going to listen to is English. It's going to take a lot more work," said Raasch. "But when it's just every day, all around you -- you just absorb it at this age."

But Superintendent Bill Green says co-locating is becoming more common. And something as simple as staggered schedules could help control when Spanish and English is spoken in the hallways. Details like that will be worked out in coming months, he says, which is why parents need to stay involved.

Green also declares that the public has never been more engaged than this in anything the Minneapolis district has done.

"If we're doing all the things you've asked and we're meeting your goals, why would you dismantle that?"

"I think it would be easier to come up with an easier plan, and to try to make a single size fit all. And we chose to do it the hard way because I think in the long run, it's better for this community," said Green.

Green said he believes the plan is the fairest and most equitable for parents and students in the district.

"That's not to say I feel that the plan is absolutely perfect. I don't know that there's such a thing as a perfect plan," said Green.

The case of Emerson also showcases how complex the district is, especially when you consider another school -- Armatage. Emerson parents are wary of co-location. But Armatage parents want to keep it, which is why they held their own rally last week.

Armatage is currently a half-community school and half-magnet school. But the overhaul plan would make it entirely magnet.

Drew Riley has three children at Armatage. He says it's great that leaders want to find ways to improve the district. But given Armatage's test scores and other achievements, he says they'd be breaking up a successful model in the process.

Students and parents
This group of parents and students, standing in front of Emerson Spanish Immersion School in Minneapolis, is trying to raise awareness of the district's plan to close the Emerson building and move the immersion program to Anwatin/Bryn Mawr.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"If we're doing all the things you've asked and we're meeting your goals, why would you dismantle that? That's what we don't understand," said Riley.

School Board Chairman Tom Madden says reorganizations this large always draw opposition, but he adds this plan is likely to pass because there's also been, in general, more understanding from the community.

"Everybody gets it this time that there are changes that have to be made, and that's happening in every district in the state, just about," said Madden. "People understand the need for Changing School Options. Now, whether they agree to every single piece -- some do and some don't."

Madden says he expects a few changes might be proposed before tonight's final vote, but probably nothing to drastically alter the plan.

The plan also would establish new attendance boundaries to determine which community school students will most likely attend. Busing routes would also change, and the number of magnet programs would drop -- all in the name of saving as much as $8 million a year for a district facing big deficits in the future.

No one's denying the tough months ahead. In all, the district estimates as many as 5,800 students in Minneapolis will be attending a new school next year, once this plan is in place.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.