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Enrollment losses have been all too common in the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts, but in 2019-20, the reductions have been even greater than projected.

In the past year, Minneapolis expected to lose 800 students; instead, it’s lost nearly 1,200. This fall, St. Paul exceeded a projected loss of 625 students by an additional 323 kids.

Officials now are sounding similar refrains about underutilized buildings and the need to keep programs sustainable but are searching for ways, too, to stop the bleeding.

Minneapolis is focusing its attention on retaining the students it has — with the exodus of black students being of particular concern.

St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said that his district also must not lose sight of serving “the students who are ours.” But he has voiced frustration, with buildings being under capacity and “scraping by,” he said, “to offer what I think our community wants.”

As a new year approaches, everyone agrees: Important work lies ahead.

Strategic look

This spring, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff convened a task force to tackle the issue of student retention.

Thirteen schools also were targeted for help over the summer in stemming the flow of kids from a district that since has dropped in size to 33,380 students. Four of those schools — Cityview Community School, Jefferson Community School, Nellie Stone Johnson Community School and Pillsbury Elementary — are operating at about half their student capacity, while North Community High is at 23.5%, according to Oct. 1 enrollment data.

In an e-mail, Julie Schultz Brown, the district’s marketing and communications director, said the task force confirmed that the vast majority of students leaving Minneapolis Public Schools are students of color — with more than 50% being black. The group also identified concerns related to school climate and academic rigor as being among the three key factors driving the departures.

Recommendations being readied for Graff include steering “rising students” into the appropriate schools and promoting a more personal touch between schools and families. For example, each student should have at least one personal connection — perhaps a mentor — within his or her school, Schultz Brown said.

In St. Paul, Gothard is concerned about nine schools with fewer than 300 students — district “outliers,” he said, that at that level of enrollment typically require subsidies to operate.

They include Galtier Community School, which three years ago survived a recommendation that it be closed, and Cherokee Heights Elementary, which has been penciled into a coming round of districtwide school improvement projects.

A sign outside Cherokee Heights, which as of Oct. 1 had 191 students, invites families to apply to its Montessori program.

Gothard has directed his staff to review building capacity and student enrollment — and the choices families are making. Asked Friday if that could lead to schools being closed, he said: “We have to look at every option we have.” But, he noted, officials will take the time to get things right.

“This is not a panic button type of situation,” he said.

During the holiday break, district staff members have been calling and e-mailing families whose children were enrolled in the district in 2018-19 but did not return this fall. It’s part of an “exit survey” that in a later phase will involve families with children who enrolled in the fall but no longer were in the district on Dec. 1.

Jackie Turner, the district’s chief operations officer, told school board members recently that parents will be asked about the family demographics, the number of children they have and the grades they attended, and “why they left.” If they departed to attend a charter school, they will be asked which one, she said.

There is another question, too, one especially pertinent to the times.

“Would you consider coming back to St. Paul Public Schools?” Turner said.

Staff writer Faiza Mahamud contributed to this report.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109