5 things to know about St. Paul’s plan to close five schools

St. Paul Public Schools' Joe Gothard talks with a room of teachers.
St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard talks with a room of teachers inside a classroom at John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary School in 2020.
Nina Moini | MPR News 2020

Officials in Minnesota’s second-largest district are looking at a plan that would close five of its school buildings. 

Here are five things to know:

1) The district wants to close 4 elementary schools and 1 high school

Currently district leadership is making the recommendation to close Highwood Hills, J.A. Johnson, Jackson, LEAP and Wellstone. All of these schools are elementary schools except for LEAP. 

The idea is to make those buildings available for other needs and merge students into already existing programs in other buildings, or in some cases, move entire programs and students to new locations. The district is hoping to accomplish this by the fall of 2022.

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There’s also a plan to temporarily close the Obama pre-K through eighth building and then re-open it as a Montessori pre-K through fifth and middle school program by the fall of 2025.

2) The district’s goal is to get students into bigger, better-resourced programs

St. Paul is calling their strategic plan “Envision SPPS” and there are a lot of other changes included beyond the closure of these five schools. There are 10 different school programs they’re planning to expand or change. For example, they’re planning to close Parkway Montessori Middle School and repurpose it as a Hmong Dual Immersion program. 

The district is trying to eliminate spots where they say there are not enough students enrolled. The strategy seems to be getting students out of smaller schools and into larger, better-resourced schools with more specialized teachers and staff. District officials think that will be better for students and enrollment long-term. 

“Some of the reasons why families are leaving at our elementary level is that they’re leaving because we’re not able to offer this well-rounded education,” said Jackie Turner, St. Paul’s COO said at the special board meeting Monday. “So we want to support the students that are here, we believe that if we build a strong program they will come.” 

3) Enrollment decline is part of why the district says it is making these changes

The district has cited declining birth rates and increased competition from other schools as reasons it’s making changes. School choice is another reason — only about 63 percent of all the students who live in the city of St. Paul actually attend St. Paul public schools. The rest choose private, charter, open enrollment or home school. 

“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, “While it will create some efficiencies, at its core it’s about making all of our schools sustainable. I know no matter what we say or how it sounds the reasons are, this is going to be hard.”

The decline in enrollment is not unique to St. Paul. The pandemic has made the last few years unpredictable, but enrollment declines were a problem before COVID-19.

4) Teachers and staff would be affected by these changes

Some teachers will have their jobs transferred to new locations. Others may lose their jobs. In cases where the district merges two different student populations into one program, they will figure out how many teachers are needed and then retain them based on seniority.

5) Board members have yet to weigh in

Board members raised a lot of questions and concerns at the meeting, especially about closing Wellstone and LEAP. Right now district leadership is saying the proposal needs to be taken as a package deal and they can’t pick and choose which schools to close and which to leave, but that may change over the next several weeks.

The board is meeting several more times this month to discuss the proposals. They’ll take public comments on Oct. 19 and Nov. 16. And then they’re planning to vote on the plan Nov. 16.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published at 5:27 a.m. on Tuesday and later updated.