When the first school bell rings next fall, Minneapolis Public Schools expect to welcome 2,367 kindergarteners—330 more than this year. That may not sound like a massive number of small bodies, but it’s huge news for a district that’s sweated through several painful years of declining enrollment.
Numbers are up noticeably in three of the district’s four quadrants, but MPS brass are particularly pleased with the dramatic uptick in the number of families seeking to enroll kindergarteners in schools on the North Side, which has lost the most students in recent years. MPS received requests for 328 kindergarten slots on the North Side in 2008-2009, a 51 percent increase over this year’s 217.
Requests for schools in the southwestern portion of the city rose from 1,045 to 1,198, up 14.6 percent. Requests for Northeast Minneapolis schools rose 31 percent, from 211 to 276. South Minneapolis schools fielded 565 requests, exactly one more than last year.
“We were caught by surprise in a very pleasant way,” said School Board Chair Lydia Lee. “What it could mean is that people are willing to give us a try, that we’re going to capture more market share.”
Until next fall, administrators won’t know for sure how many students actually register for the slots their families requested. Nonetheless, the numbers suggest good news for a district that’s struggled to hold onto families who can choose between charters, open enrollment in schools in neighboring suburbs, and parochial and private schools.
From 2001 to 2007, enrollment fell 25 percent district-wide, and was projected to drop another 4 to 5 percent per year. The exodus was particularly dramatic on the city’s near North Side, where fully half of the community’s children — most of them African-American — are now bused to charters or suburbs.
‘Fresh Start’ off to good start
At the end of the 2006-2007 school year, MPS closed five North Side elementary schools and restructured, or “Fresh Started,” two others that were failing to make enough progress on standardized tests to satisfy the federal No Child Left Behind law.
At the same time, MPS announced the North Side Initiative, a sweeping plan to address community frustration with the area’s flagging schools. Board members decided to concentrate district resources on bringing down class sizes, providing disciplinary support to classroom teachers and increasing the range of academic offerings. In addition, every school on the North Side now offers full-day kindergarten — something most other MPS schools can’t afford.
“We thought kindergarten [enrollment] would be essentially flat citywide,” said Jim Liston, MPS’ manager of student accounting. “And we expected enrollment to be down on the North Side.”
When the current school year started, tensions between MPS and its North Side families were at an all-time high. At community meetings and in online forums, parents quickly started noting that the community’s reconfigured elementary schools were quiet, orderly and staffed by teachers who wanted to be teaching there — a huge change in schools that several years ago had teacher turnover rates of 400 percent or more.
“I see this whole thing as a trust and confidence issue,” said Lee. “People talk to each other.”
Director of Student Placement Jackie Turner is especially gratified by the hike in requests. In recent months, she and her staff have waged a grass-roots campaign to mend the district’s fractious relations with the low-income and minority families leaving the district in the greatest numbers. MPS staff literally canvassed the North Side, knocking on doors and asking parents what it would take to regain their trust.
“We went barbershop to barbershop,” she said. “We made individual phone calls requesting people to come back. We asked them why they left.”
Mary Olson is director of communications and public relations for Anoka-Hennepin schools. Although enrollment there is projected to fall by 500 students overall, administrators expect a slight uptick in kindergarteners, from 2,562 this year to 2,617 next fall. That district’s families have fewer options than Minneapolis parents, Olson noted. It’s more likely Anoka-Hennepin’s gradual decline is the result of the falling birth rate than things like charters and open enrollment, she said.
Exciting as the numbers are, Turner has no plans to take it easy. “We’re not going to stop our recruiting efforts,” she said. “We’re going to continue through the summer.”