St. Paul Public Schools could recast, pare elementary schools

The St. Paul school district is looking to recast elementary schools and pare their number in an effort to give children equal access to a “well-rounded education.”

That means offering science and the arts in every building, and preschool, too, across the state’s second-largest district.

The planning, part of an ongoing project dubbed Envision SPPS, takes into account the district’s enrollment woes and creates the likelihood that schools deemed “unsustainable” will be shuttered and some programs merged.

“We are going to have to make a decision to close some schools,” Jackie Turner, the district’s chief operations officer, told school board members during a presentation Tuesday night.

The changes, if adopted by the board this year, would be phased in beginning in the 2022-23 school year and aided by a boost in federal funding. The district is using part of its $207 million in American Rescue Plan money to hire about 150 teachers, spokesman Kevin Burns said.

Board Member Jessica Kopp said she, like other members, wants the district to be “crystal clear” in its decisionmaking. But as a parent whose daughter sometimes had art and sometimes did not based on whether there were enough kids to support it, she said she was excited about every student having a chance to try new things.

“I don’t want families to have to [just] get by,” she said. “I want families to thrive and be excited about those schools.”

Information presented to the board Tuesday cites a challenge facing not just St. Paul but districts across the country: Births are on the decline, spelling trouble for school systems like St. Paul’s that focus on attracting kindergartners in competitive school-choice environments.

Births in the city have dropped from 5,933 in 2012-13 to 5,059 in 2019-20, the district said.

St. Paul Public Schools had about 35,000 students this past year. Tuesday’s data included projections on the expected hit to kindergarten enrollment, but there were no specifics on how choice has affected the district.

In 2017, the Star Tribune reported that nearly 30% of St. Paul’s school-aged children were attending charter schools or using open enrollment to go to other districts. Since then, the number of charter schools within the city has increased. For its recently approved 2021-22 school year budget, the district projected the loss of about 1,100 kids.

Turner said small elementary schools still require operational costs like those of larger schools — administrative staff, food services, transportation, heating and the like — but that without the same level of per-pupil revenue, inequities result.

Students, families and others are taking note.

When the 2021-22 budget was passed last month, students and their supporters decried the lack of art or music programs in some of the district’s poorer schools. Nikki Mechelke, a former PTO president at Horace Mann School in Highland Park, told the board then that her kids were fortunate to attend a school where the arts were a priority, and for which the PTO raised money. It was unfair for all kids not to have the same programming, she said.

This week, Turner said: “Right now, there are educational disparities in our system, and we want to remove those.”

Plans call for the district to partner with the NAACP to monitor equity and integration issues associated with any changes.

Envision SPPS was launched in February 2020 as a two-year project to match district facilities and resources with the programming families want and the district can afford. Merging and repurposing buildings were mentioned as possible outcomes at the start. Tuesday’s update included findings from 11 work groups assigned to the project plus options to be considered before they make recommendations for the board to consider later this year — most likely in November or December.

Turner said she expects changes to involve a “minimal number of our elementary schools,” with potential impact on some middle and high school programs they feed. She said the district is not providing a list of schools deemed unsustainable for fear people will assume they’ll be closed when other options will be reviewed.

The district did share what’s meant by a well-rounded education.

“Building on a deep understanding of the core essentials of reading, writing and math, students are taught by educators with expertise in science, the arts (visual arts, music, dance, theater), and physical education while having access to an array of enrichment opportunities,” the statement reads in part. “In addition, in an ideal-sized school, there’s a team of staff to provide students with learning that is more personalized to their specific needs, while also addressing their social-emotional and health needs.”

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109

Twitter: @StribLonetree

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