In Duluth, schools struggle to bridge city’s long-standing east-west divide

Drone footage of a high school in Duluth.
Duluth Denfeld High School (foreground) as seen on Sunday in Duluth. Duluth has long been defined by an east-west divide, and there have been stark disparities between the two sides of town when it comes to health, income and especially education.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

In the Woodland neighborhood on Duluth’s east side, the average person lives to be more than 90 years old. Six miles away, in the west side’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, the average person lives to be only 69. 

Twenty-one years of life, separated by a 12-minute drive. 

That data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts into sharp focus the geographical and generational divide separating Duluth's more working class, racially diverse west side above the St. Louis River from the city’s whiter, more prosperous east end, overlooking Lake Superior.

The gaps extend from health to income to housing but are perhaps most evident in education, where graduation rates and test scores are substantially lower at the west side’s Denfeld High School than at East High School, and where recent efforts to redraw school boundaries laid bare the divisions that remain between the two sides of town.

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“It’s a justice issue,” said Mary Owen, a Native American physician and professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Duluth who helped found a community group that advocates for equity among the city’s public schools. “This is not a level playing field … if you don’t have the resources because of where you were born.”

There have been significant efforts to close those gaps in recent years.

Owen and other advocates have persuaded school officials to allocate additional funding to western schools.

Efforts within the schools to improve outcomes have begun to bear fruit. 

But achievement gaps remain stubbornly persistent. Recent test scores showed 73 percent of East High students scoring proficient in reading, compared to 44 percent of students at Denfeld.

“That shows you the difference in the education that our students are getting from the west side of town in comparison to the east side of town,” said Ebony Hillman, education committee co-chair of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Drone footage of a high school in Duluth.
Duluth East High School (foreground) and Northland Country Club (top) as seen on Sunday in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News


Redlining’s legacy

The roots of Duluth’s east-west divide can be traced to the city’s industrial boom in the late 1800s, when lumber mills, grain elevators and factories sprouted up along the St. Louis River southwest of downtown.

Those jobs lured low-income, immigrant laborers, who lived in nearby neighborhoods so they could walk to their jobs, said regional historian Tony Dierckins.

Those early factories were powered by coal-fired generators that belched clouds of black smoke into the air. The city’s wealthier residents began migrating east, away from the pollution, where they built large homes and imposing mansions overlooking Lake Superior.

“So you get this wealthy, residential, eastern end of town, and the poor, blue-collar, industrial, lower-income folks on the west part of town,” said Dierckins, who wrote about the east-west divide in his book, “Duluth: An Urban Biography.”

Racial segregation began to take root in the early 1900s when U.S. Steel built a mill along the St. Louis River, and recruited African Americans from the South to work there. They weren’t allowed to live in Morgan Park, the company town U.S. Steel built to house employees, so many instead settled in neighborhoods farther west. 

That segregation was further cemented in the 1930s when the federal government evaluated the perceived lending risk in neighborhoods in more than 200 cities, including Duluth.

The maps drawn by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corp. color-coded in red the neighborhoods that were considered the highest risk for lenders.

“They looked at neighborhoods through a very racist perspective,” said Duluth city planner Kathy Wilson, who’s researched redlining in Duluth. 

Many of Duluth’s western neighborhoods were infamously “redlined,” either coded red for “hazardous” or yellow for “definitely declining.” They included descriptions such as “occupied by many nationalities of the low income class, including negroes,“ and “foreign industrial workers occupy the area, Italians predominating.”

Even people who were able to buy homes, Wilson said, couldn’t get loans to help maintain them. “And then that legacy is those neighborhoods were not invested in for decades.” 

The disparities that exist today between the east and west sides of Duluth are clear reflections of those past policies, Wilson added.

Almost two-thirds of Duluth homes built more than 75 years ago are in western Duluth. More than three-quarters of the city’s Native and Black populations live on the west side. Two-thirds of people living in poverty live in western Duluth. Life expectancy is significantly greater in many eastern neighborhoods. 

“It's like they … took a snapshot of the neighborhoods in Duluth in 1936, and said, ‘We're gonna keep it like this,’” Wilson said. “And that's the problem that we now are faced with.”

Equal is not equitable

The city’s geographical divide intensified in 2011, when Duluth’s Central High School closed. That left just two public high schools in the city — Denfeld on the west side, and East High.

In the years since, Denfeld’s enrollment has hovered around 1,000 students or fewer, as hundreds of students left for schools in neighboring districts, or for private and charter schools. 

East, meanwhile, has grown, and now serves about 1,600 students. That’s created its own challenges, including crowded classrooms and study halls. 

But more students also mean added opportunity, including more scheduling options for students to take upper-level courses. 

The school district also added a voluntary class period several years ago called “Zero Hour,” after officials canceled a seventh hour of classes because of budget cuts. 

Zero Hour is available at both schools. But critics argue it unfairly benefits students from more privileged backgrounds at East because the students have to provide their own transportation.

“What it really did was it widened the opportunity and the educational gap between students,” says Tonya Sconiers, a former assistant principal and principal at Denfeld for 19 years. 

Sconiers joined a group of Denfeld parents and teachers in 2017 to push for greater equity between the two high schools. They argued that because students came to Denfeld with greater needs, the school needed additional resources to help them succeed. A system based on equality, where schools receive the same amount of money per pupil, only perpetuates disparities, they said. 

“I can honestly tell you that it was an ongoing struggle and battle and challenge to make known the resources that were needed at Denfeld to meet the needs of the students,” Sconiers said. 

The equity group eventually convinced the school district to reallocate funding it received for low-income students, to keep a greater percentage of those dollars at schools like Denfeld with higher concentrations of poverty. 

Duluth East spanish teacher Kim Kroll Strukel talks to her students
Duluth East spanish teacher Kim Kroll Strukel talks to her students during her class on March 18 at East High School.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But Sconiers’ advocacy came at a cost, she said. In 2019, she was fired for, among other reasons, “insubordination" and "inappropriately" using sick leave.

Sconiers sued. In her 52-page federal lawsuit, she argued she was fired for speaking out on equity issues in a district divided by “East vs. West, or, the haves and the have-nots.” She also alleged Duluth schools treated her differently as a Black woman. 

The school district denied discriminating against Sconiers. Eventually the two sides settled. Sconiers received $229,000 after attorney’s fees. The district didn’t admit any wrongdoing. 

Sconiers, who now works for a statewide group pushing for education equity, said the legal fight helped shine a light on inequities in the system.

Since Sconiers’ firing, Duluth schools have hired new leaders who community members say are committed to addressing equity issues.

Duluth Denfeld principal Tom Tusken talks about being an educator
Duluth Denfeld principal Tom Tusken talks about being an educator at Denfeld High School.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

They include Tom Tusken, Denfeld’s principal, who served as assistant principal under Sconiers and was involved with the community equity group. 

A former civics teacher, who graduated from Denfeld, met his wife there and lives less than a block away.

Tusken choked up as he talked about Denfeld’s students and the daily hurdles many face.

He said it’s hard to grasp the challenges many of his students face before even showing up at school. Nearly half qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. About a quarter are eligible for specialized education services. Many face trauma at home stemming from mental health issues and other challenges. 

“And what really can get to me is the fact that sometimes the only thing that we report on is test scores or graduation numbers, but we don't look at what's behind those,” Tusken said. “What is reported simply is a comparison to our counterpart across town.”

That “counterpart” is East High School, where fewer than 15 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and where test scores and graduation rates consistently outpace Denfeld. 

The community, he said, needs to start looking at high school students not as Denfeld kids or East kids, but Duluth kids.

“People have to understand the challenges, so they can then say ‘I'm OK with supporting kids that are not, quote-unquote, my own kids,’” he said.

A principal shakes hands with a student.
Duluth Denfeld principal Tom Tusken shakes hands with sophomore Nevaeh Sanders earlier this month at Denfeld High School in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Some programs at Denfeld that give students additional emotional, social and academic support have begun to show promise.

One of those, “Check and Connect,” was developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota. At Denfeld, it’s geared toward students of color and those receiving special education services. 

Mentors work closely with students to check on their assignments and attendance and identify challenges they’re facing. They also connect with the student’s family and teachers and identify additional resources, including an after-school tutoring program that offers free city bus passes so students have a way to get home. 

Since the program began at Denfeld about five years ago, the graduation rate of participating students is 100 percent.

During a recent visit to the school Tusken described “glimmers of hope.” That included the story of a student that morning who received a perfect score on an international studies project.

“This kid doesn’t smile,” Tusken said. “But he actually had a smile on his face.”

“‘I guess I did pretty well,’” the boy told him. 

‘Change is hard’

Despite signs of progress, a proposal two years ago to shift school boundaries to better balance student demographics between East and Denfeld revealed just how entrenched the divide remains. 

At a public meeting at East High School, parents reacted furiously, yelling and interrupting presenters. 

“I was taken aback,” said Nikolas Bayuk, an east-side father of two who became involved with a Facebook parent group opposed to the proposed boundary changes. 

But while he disagreed with how opponents to the changes behaved that night, he shared their point of view. Under some of the proposals, Bayuk’s kids would have been sent to Lincoln Park Middle School and Denfeld on the west side of town. 

Bayuk said he wasn’t worried about the quality of education his kids would receive there, but with the hourlong bus ride the change would create. 

“It wasn't so much of a concern for our kids being at the, quote-unquote, ‘bad school,’” he said. “It was how long is it going to take for our kids to get to school. We didn't move to the east end of town so our kids would go to school on the west end.”

But the debate over the boundary proposal — and how western schools were often portrayed at those meetings — was frustrating for parents like Lindsay Kern, whose oldest daughter is a freshman at Denfeld. 

She said she’s fielded all kinds of questions and comments about their decision to send her daughter there, from “Do you think she'll be safe?” to “You guys can afford to send her anywhere, we're surprised that you made the decision to send her there.”

Kern said those comments, which she described as based in fear, only reinforced their decision, adding that it’s important to her and her husband, who are white, that their kids experience racial and socioeconomic diversity at school. She now counts herself a proud ambassador for western schools.

“I think that that's really where the change is most likely to happen, when people have those opportunities to have one-on-one conversations with people who are actually a part of that school community.”

But it’s hard to change long-held perceptions. On her street, only two families attend Denfeld. The rest send their children to private and charter schools, or to public schools in neighboring districts. 

A teacher during a class.
Math teacher Ed Lewis works through some math problems during his class on March 15 at Denfeld High School.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Meanwhile, some families have moved to eastern neighborhoods because of concerns about the schools. 

Jnana Hand got involved in the discussions over border changes because she feels people of color are often left out of those conversations. Hand is of African American, Native American, Hispanic and European heritage. 

She’s very concerned about racial segregation in Duluth schools and the concentration of poverty in western schools. But as the mom of a ninth grader, she was also concerned about sending her daughter to a high school that she didn’t feel was getting the support it needed to serve its students. 

“I just wasn't confident that my daughter would be OK.”

So, Hand ended up moving to the east side of the district, where she found a good deal on a house she could afford. She says her daughter is slowly acclimating to a new school, and that staff there have been very supportive.

The Duluth school board eventually put the boundary debate on hold. The district says the time frame for revisiting the issue is still under consideration.

Tusken, Denfeld’s principal, doesn’t believe the community will ever get past its east-west divisions until it addresses the boundary issue. 

Part of that responsibility, he said, lies with Denfeld to do a better job attracting students. Families, he noted, need to trust that regardless of where their children go to school, they will receive an excellent education. 

“Because change is hard. And part of that conversation has to be how we address some of the disparities and inequities that have been inherent in Duluth for a long time.” 

A school principal helps a student.
Duluth Denfeld principal Tom Tusken helps student Gabriel Carrillo with a map on March 15.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News
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