Some immigrant parents say St. Paul school closures would hurt their communities

a woman and children with signs outside a school
Fadumo D. Kahin, right, dressed her family in Highwood Hills Elementary's school color — orange — to protest the school's possible closure at an Oct. 28 St. Paul School Board meeting.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for their free newsletter to receive their stories in your inbox.

On a chilly Thursday evening outside Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary School in St. Paul’s North End, masked students in purple puffy jackets waited for a bus, alongside their parents and music teacher. They had just eaten dinner, organized by the parent-teacher organization. Now, the group was heading to the school board meeting. They hoped to convince district leaders not to close their school.

“Hopefully, they listen,” said Janet Pacheco, who has two children in the school.

Azeza Ahmed, a mother who recently moved to the Twin Cities from Texas, said she brought her children to this school because her neighborhood school was full. She wasn’t sure what she would do if Wellstone closed. “Where would I take my kids?” she asked.

As they waited, music and world cultures teacher Russell Packard led the group in a bilingual song.

“Súbanse al bus,” Packard sang: Get on the bus.

“Niños, niños,” the children chorused in response. 

Parents joined in too, including Azeza. “Vamos al Wellstone bus!” they concluded together.

a man leads children in song outside on a staircase
Music and world cultures teacher Russell Packard led Wellstone students in a song before boarding a bus to the Nov. 11 school board meeting.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Soon, the bilingual Wellstone school song may become obsolete. Last month, St. Paul Public Schools released a proposal to close five school buildings, including Wellstone, while consolidating other programs. District leaders explained the goal is to provide all students with a “well-rounded education,” including enough building specialists to offer specialized classes in subjects like science, art, world languages and health. That means shuttering smaller schools that don’t have sufficient enrollment for those programs.

But families at some of the schools have pushed back — including those at Wellstone, which houses a Spanish/English dual-immersion program as well as a science specialty called BioSmart. Unlike the other schools on the list, Wellstone has enrollment numbers that meet the district’s definition of a sustainable school. District officials explained that school made the list as part of a Spanish immersion consolidation. 

For years, enrollment has been declining at St. Paul Public Schools. In the past year alone, the district’s enrollment — close to 35,000 students in October 2020 — dropped by 2,200. That’s partly due to declining birth rates in St. Paul. But the district has also lost students by the thousands to nearby schools, especially charter schools that cater to specific immigrant populations. 

Yet the closure and consolidation plan could displace students from some of the immigrant communities most at risk to leave the district. 

At Wellstone, parents feel betrayed by the proposal to close a beloved school that meets the district’s own definition of success. LEAP High School students say the school has provided a welcoming community for them to learn English and acclimate to a new country. And Somali parents at Highwood Hills Elementary worry that closing the school would decimate a vital community hub.

Jackie Turner, the district’s chief operations officer, said that providing well-rounded education at all schools is a critical component of educational equity. At small schools like Highwood Hills, students do not receive the same quality of education, she said. 

“They’re getting the state minimum requirement. And that’s not what our expectation is as a district,” she said. “We believe all students should have access to a high-quality program.”

Board member Jessica Kopp said she had visited many of the school sites recommended for closure or consolidation and found drastic variety in their offerings. ​​”You wouldn’t recognize them both as St. Paul Public Schools,” she said. “The difference in what’s available is staggering.”

In crafting the plan, the district used a racial equity tool developed with the NAACP to make sure no demographic group was disproportionately affected, Turner said.

Still, for some school communities, the proposal came as a harsher blow. Many parents who spoke with Sahan Journal described the data-driven proposal as top-down: It felt already predetermined, with no room for their input.

For school board members, some elements of the plan — like merging the two campuses of the French immersion school — are uncontroversial. But other changes — especially at the three schools where parents and students have pushed back the most — feel harder to agree to. The board is scheduled to vote Dec. 1.

“People over generations remember these things,” said school board member Yusef Carrillo. “This is not something that we can take lightly and disregard the voice of those affected.”

‘It’s a community center for us’

At Highwood Hills, in a fairly isolated neighborhood near Battle Creek Park, the school building serves as a resource center for the Somali families who live in the housing developments nearby.

“It’s a great school,” Hakima Adan, a mother of two current Highwood Hills students, said. Plus, its location is convenient for her family. “I have young children at home. If I’m picking the kids up, back and forth, it’s easier on me.”

Halimo Daud, a mother of seven — one of whom goes to Highwood Hills — said the school’s proximity to the apartment buildings nearby made it easy for parents to have their voices heard. 

“It’s such a big change for us to go to a new school,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult.”

Musaxaba Ali has one child enrolled at Highwood Hills and another son on the prekindergarten waiting list. 

“It’s a community center for us,” she said. “It’s a place where we go to vote, and children have a place to play.”

Regardless of the school’s fate, district officials say the recreation center will stay open. But families say they want the school to stay, too.

Fadumo D. Kahin came to the United States nine years ago as a refugee. Seven of her eight children have attended Highwood Hills, with the littlest still too young for school. Her family has never experienced any problems there, she said. Closing the school, she said, “would break my heart.”

a young child stands near people seated at a meeting
Most of Fadumo D. Kahin’s children have attended Highwood Hills. She hopes to send her youngest daughter there, too.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Turner, the district official, said that of the area’s school-aged children, only a small fraction actually attend Highwood Hills Elementary.

“A school isn’t a community school if 80 percent of the community doesn’t attend it,” said Turner.

Jim Vue, vice chair of the school board, expressed concerns about disrupting schooling for these Somali families. “What I know from my own experience, from my family coming over here, is you need that time to set roots. You need that time to stabilize your community,” Vue said in an interview. “You can’t be moving from school district to school district trying to do that.”

‘The happiest kids to go to school’

Eight miles away in St. Paul’s North End, Wellstone parents felt stunned that the district would close a successful and beloved school.

Blanca Perez, who works in a restaurant and runs a cleaning company, sends her 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter to Wellstone. Her nieces and nephews attended the school before them. When her daughter was 6, she told Perez that she wanted her own children to attend Wellstone, too.

“They’re the happiest kids to go to school,” she said. “On breaks, they’re sad. It’s the right place for them.”

At Wellstone, children learn to speak both English and Spanish perfectly, she said. Closing the school “would take the opportunity away from them.” 

She also cherishes the school’s diversity: Native Spanish speakers learn alongside white, African American and Oromo students. “We are a complete community,” she said.

Gabriela Spears-Rico, an assistant professor in Chicano and Latino studies at the University of Minnesota, said she chose Wellstone for her daughter because she wanted a Spanish immersion program in a diverse community. She worried that she might be tokenized at a private or suburban school. She also wanted a school that offered additional enrichment opportunities and where she would see improvement in her daughter’s use of Spanish at home.

“I have loved Wellstone so much because I really feel like she’s getting a quality education and personal attention by dedicated teachers,” Spears-Rico said.

Wellstone’s possible closure worries Spears-Rico both as a mother and a scholar. Many Latino parents who work two or three jobs might choose a more convenient English-speaking school nearby rather than put their child on a longer bus ride to continue Spanish immersion, she said.

a filled room for a school board meeting
St. Paul Public Schools families, many representing Highwood Hills and Wellstone, packed an Oct. 28 public comment session on the consolidation plan.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“If they do close Wellstone, it might have this intergenerational effect in our community,” she said. “Once a heritage speaker loses the language, it’s really an uphill battle for the next generation to retain the language or to relearn it.”

Growing up in California, Spears-Rico attended only public schools. She wanted to send her child to public school, too, despite Minnesota’s reputation for delivering an unequal education to students of color. But if Wellstone closes, she said, she will seriously consider sending her daughter to the charter school Academia Cesar Chavez.

She noted that many of the schools targeted in the district plan serve large numbers of immigrant students. “It feels really unfair,” she said. “It feels unequal, and it feels like it’s feeding into the structural problem in Minnesota.”

Wellstone’s proposed closure came as a surprise to school board member Yusef Carrillo, whose children attend the school and whose wife works there as a dual-immersion curriculum coordinator. 

When the administration presented the plan in October, Carrillo didn’t think he would vote on the proposal at all. His term — a temporary appointment to fill a vacancy — was supposed to end in early November. But board members agreed to extend his term so they could have a full board of seven for the important vote.

That placed him in the strange position of voting on a proposal that could close the school where his wife teaches.

But Carrillo said he does not view this situation as a material conflict of interest, since his wife has tenure and her employment is not at risk. He’s more worried, he said, about the newer teachers in Wellstone’s BioSmart program, including some of the district’s first teachers from the Karen refugee community. They could lose their jobs in layoffs or be moved to new sites where they may not receive the same support, he said.

“That’s what’s at risk,” he said.

Ahead of the vote, board members are wrestling with how to proceed. Turner urged a vote on the entire package, rather than picking and choosing certain schools. But in interviews, some board members pushed back.

“Well-rounded isn’t a cookie-cutter formula,” Vue said. While some of the district’s proposals were well thought out, he said, others need work. LEAP, Highwood Hills and Wellstone stood out as “red flags,” he said. 

At Wellstone, the district’s closure plan contradicts its own rationale; at LEAP, the student population is unique and not necessarily well-suited to a traditional high school; and at Highwood Hills, the school holds an important meaning to a growing community, he said.

Vue said he requested a list of schools that currently meet the district’s definition of “well-rounded” from the administration. Wellstone, slated for closure, appeared on the list. “That’s problematic for a lot of reasons,” he said.

Carrillo listed a similar set of problems with the district’s plan. Like Vue, he expressed frustration at the lack of family engagement.

“Most of the presentations have really focused on academics,” he said. “I’m more concerned about the human component — and really the cultural component of having the school that specifically addresses that very key moment in life for a student when they’re newcomers, which really can make or break the life of a person.”

Carrillo hopes the board can find an intermediate solution for LEAP, such as co-locating it within another high school. He described Highwood Hills’ situation as “the biggest dilemma.” The school’s low enrollment is problematic, he said. But its isolation from other St. Paul neighborhoods could leave families without other nearby options.

Kopp said that with some tweaks, the plan would probably win her support. Several years ago, her daughter’s school nearly closed. She actively tried to recruit new families and saw how widely varying offerings affected enrollment. But she understands that while school closures can be painful, they can also be necessary. 

She wants to see more specificity from the district on the plan for shuttered schools, she said. She’s also interested in an alternative plan for LEAP, like co-location. And she was glad to hear the district suggest a plan for engagement at Highwood Hills, which could result in reopening the school with more community commitment in the future.

“I know we’re not doing as much as we could be for our immigrant families,” she said. “And I think this is an opportunity to reset and restart with a new attitude and a new approach.”

Vue, who has taken a more active role as vice chair while Chair Jeannie Foster recovers from a case of COVID-19, said the board plans to develop an alternative to the district’s plan by consensus and present it to the administration prior to a vote.

“What I want us to do is to come out with a plan that, in consensus, reflects the heart of what people have been asking for,” Carrillo said.

A final public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 30, ahead of the Dec. 1 vote.

Halimo Daud has always felt that her child’s school, Highwood Hills, listens to parent voices. Now she hopes the district does the same. “If they’re going to make a decision,” said Halimo Daud, “they should have our input.”

Abdirahman Mohamed contributed reporting.

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