Editorial counterpoint: Saint-Paul school closures are shortsighted

Facts and research were ignored in a recent editorial endorsing the St. Paul District School Closure Plan (“Shutting Down Schools Painful, Necessary,” Nov. 19). What is happening has lessons not only for St. Paul, but for many communities trying to improve student outcomes and increase enrollment.

We suggest compromises and research-based efforts to help more students succeed.

We represent many families, students and educators who challenge the St. Paul Public Schools Envision Plan (SPPS) and who offer research-based alternatives. The recommendations of the SPPS administrators are based on questionable assumptions and may well reduce enrollment beyond the more than 2,300 K-12 students the district has lost over the past four years. First the concerns, then the suggestions.

Concerns:

  • 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 are not enough students in Highwood Hills. But when a number of Somali American parents recently met with SPPS placement staff, they were told that Highwood Hills had room for their children. When parents tried to enroll their students, administrators said there was no room. Why does the SPPS recommend closing the school due to the low enrollment rate but preventing people from enrolling?
  • Michelle Benegas, an ESL teacher at Hamline University, told school board members that LEAP High School, which welcomes recent immigrants who do not speak English, is “an innovative model that has been reproduced throughout the world “. It “provides a soft landing platform for children who have suffered indescribable trauma.” LEAP could share the space with other district programs or community agencies.
  • SPPS wants every school to offer a “complete” education. But their committee defining that term did not include any parent, teacher, or student. Failure to ask many families about their priorities helps explain the exodus to suburban and charter public schools.
  • We have shared research showing that small schools are safer. There is less bullying, which is critical, as many families have left SPPS for this reason. Small schools can also be cheaper than large schools when transportation and other costs are included. Jackie Turner, COO of SPPS, told us that the Envision plan won’t necessarily save money.
  • As Representatives Athena Hollins, John Thompson and Jay Xiong told SPPS: “There appears to be great inequity both geographically and demographically. Most of the proposed closures are on the East Side. … [O]Again… the East Side is neglected and caved in. “
  • Robin Shields-Cutler, assistant professor of biology at Macalester College and parent of Wellstone Elementary School, told school board members two major problems with Envision SPPS: “a misrepresentation of data and a toxic mentality either / or.” He pointed out that the district’s data on Wellstone’s enrollment does not support the school’s closure.

Suggestions:

  • Hire an external group to recommend improvements for persistent issues at the Placement Center.
  • Hire more bi / multilingual outreach workers.
  • Expand the research-based early childhood programs included in the plan.
  • Hire talented local educators to train SPPS faculty in the summer of 2022, so that a comprehensive and inclusive program representing St. Paul’s diverse student body is in place by fall 2022. For a decade, families ask for it. It is still not done. Many families say they are leaving because the SPPS has acted so slowly on this issue.
  • Look for social service groups interested in renting space in underused buildings. Research shows that “community schools” provide better service to families and save taxpayer dollars.
  • Insist that administrators present measurable student outcome goals before the school board adopts a budget plan. The National Association of Government Financial Officers, of which the SPPS Budget Director is a member, strongly recommends it.
  • Give SPPS educators and families the opportunity to replicate district and public charter schools that attract local families.
  • Open World, a waiting-list SPPS school, offers one-on-one goal setting talks for families / students / educators every August. Consider doing this throughout the district.
  • Close or merge schools where families have been involved and agree, such as the L’Etoile du Nord campus merger project (French immersion).

Abdi Barkat is a software engineer and parent of Highwood Hills students. Khulia Pringle is a graduate of SPPS and organizer of the National Parents Union. Joe Nathan is a former SPPS educator, president of PTA and currently director of the Center for School Change. For a declaration signed by around fifty supporters, visittinyurl.com/32hyhp36.


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