Facts and research were ignored in a recent editorial endorsing the St. Paul district school closing plan ("Closing schools is painful, necessary," Nov. 19). What's happening has lessons not only for St. Paul, but for many communities trying to improve student outcomes and increase enrollment.
We suggest compromise and research-based efforts to help more students succeed.
We represent many families, students and educators who are challenging the St. Paul Public Schools' (SPPS) Envision plan and offering research-based alternatives. SPPS administrators' recommendations are based on questionable assumptions and may well reduce enrollment beyond the more than 2,300 K-12 students the district has lost in the last four years. First, concerns, then suggestions.
- Parents in the area served by Highwood Hills, including one of the authors, describe a huge contradiction in SPPS plans to close small elementary schools. Officials say there aren't enough students at Highwood Hills. But when a number of Somali-American parents met recently with the SPPS placement staff, they were told Highwood Hills had space for their children. When parents tried to enroll their students, administrators said there was no room. Why is SPPS recommending the school be closed because of low enrollment but preventing people from enrolling?
- Michelle Benegas, professor of ESL education at Hamline University, told school board members that LEAP High School, which serves recent immigrants who don't speak English, is "an innovative model that has been replicated around the world." It "provides a soft landing pad for kids who have experienced unspeakable trauma." LEAP could share space with other district programs or community agencies.
- SPPS wants every school to offer a "well-rounded" education. But their committee defining this term didn't include any parents, teachers or students. Failure to ask many families about their priorities helps explain the exodus to suburban and charter public schools.
- We've shared research showing that smaller schools are safer. There's less bullying, which is critical, since many families left SPPS for this reason. Smaller schools may also be less expensive than large schools when transportation and other costs are included. Jackie Turner, SPPS chief operations officer, told us that the Envision plan won't necessarily save money.
- As Reps. Athena Hollins, John Thompson and Jay Xiong told SPPS: "There seems to be great inequity in both geography and demographic considerations. Many of the proposed closures are on the East Side. … [O]nce again … the East Side is being neglected and divested."
- Robin Shields-Cutler, assistant professor of biology at Macalester College and Wellstone Elementary parent, told school board members of two major problems with Envision SPPS: "data misrepresentation and a toxic either/or mentality." He pointed out that district data about Wellstone's enrollment doesn't support closing the school.
- Hire an outside group to recommend improvements for persistent Placement Center problems.
- Hire more bi/multilingual outreach workers.
- Expand research-based early childhood programs included in the plan.
- Hire talented local educators to train SPPS faculty in the summer of 2022, so that an inclusive comprehensive curriculum representing St. Paul's diverse student body is in place by fall 2022. For a decade, families have requested this. It's still not done. Many families report leaving because SPPS moved so slowly on this.
- Seek social service groups interested in renting space in underused buildings. Research shows "community schools" provide better service to families and save taxpayer funds.
- Insist that administrators present measurable student outcome goals before the school board adopts a budget plan. The national Government Financial Officers Association, of which the SPPS budget director is a member, strongly recommends this.
- Give SPPS educators and families opportunities to replicate district and public charter schools that are attracting local families.
- Open World, a SPPS school with a waiting list, offers individual family/student/educator goal-setting conferences every August. Consider doing this districtwide.
- Close or merge schools where families have been involved and agree, such as the proposed merger of L'Etoile du Nord (French immersion) campuses.
Abdi Barkat is a software engineer and parent of Highwood Hills students. Khulia Pringle is an SPPS graduate and National Parents Union organizer. Joe Nathan is a former SPPS educator, PTA president and currently the director of Center for School Change. For a statement signed by about 50 supporters, visit tinyurl.com/ 32hyhp36.