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Several districts watch Eden Prairie as it shifts boundaries

Never mind all the sturm und drang most families go through when selecting a school for their kids or contending with an involuntary transfer; once the little darlings are actually enrolled, a funny thing happens. Even the most reluctant parents tend to metamorphose into veritable boosters. 

Last year, for example, parents in an affluent quadrant of Minneapolis learned that, despite months of protests, their kids would no longer be given preferential status for admission to one of the city’s most sought-after elementary programs, Burroughs Community School. Instead, the Kingfield and East Harriet neighborhoods’ new community school would be Lyndale, an impoverished school in an old building few had ever considered a real option.

The hand-wringing didn’t die down overnight, but many of the affected families shook off their disappointment and, enrolling en masse, dived in with both feet. The result: A thriving school bustling with involved parents and good will.

The shift has been good for the community, too. Many Lyndale students even get to school on the “walking school bus,” a joyful group procession through the neighborhood.

Eden Prairie measure passes 4-3
Tuesday night, the Eden Prairie School Board voted 4-3 to go ahead with a controversial plan to change school attendance boundaries. An effort to integrate its schools and solve several other academic issues, the move will affect some 1,100 kids.

“The plan that was approved was really all about enhancing a really great system of schools in Eden Prairie and all about enhancing performance for all kids,” said board member Chuck Mueller, who voted in favor of the change. “The board has a policy that when the vote is made, we move forward on it unanimously, and I am confident this board will support this unanimously as we make this transition over the next year.”

Not everyone is so sanguine. As a result of new attendance boundaries, starting next year some kids who now walk to school in some of the Twin Cities’ most expensive and exclusive neighborhoods will take a bus. (A previous MinnPost story about the new map incorrectly reported that kids in the gated community Bearpath would take the bus; it’s actually a nearby subdivision that will be affected.)

In recent months, a number of their parents have staged angry protests, many tinged with racially charged invective. Some have threatened to vote the board members out, others have vowed to begin driving their children to schools in adjacent communities.

A quickly growing community
One of the metro area’s most affluent, the district serves 9,700 students. The community has grown quickly in recent years, leaving some schools overcrowded and some underused. Administrators needed to create a new elementary school, find more space for preschoolers and grapple with a persistent dip in test scores in fifth grade, the year kids move out of the K-4 programs where they were comfortable.

At the moment, Eden Prairie has five K-4 elementary schools, including a Spanish immersion magnet, one “intermediate” school serving grades 5 and 6, a middle school and a high school. The number of poor students varies dramatically from one elementary school to another.

In Minnesota the percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches more or less correlates to the number of minorities, which meant Eden Prairie’s schools were becoming more segregated. One school in particular has struggled. Forest Hills, on the east side of the 35-square-mile suburb, has a 46 percent poverty rate, and 19 percent of students are learning English.

A year ago, the board directed Superintendent Melissa Krull to begin working on a plan to reconfigure schools’ attendance boundaries to resolve all of these problems. She, in turn, deputized a panel of citizens and administrators, who came up with a plan to redistribute all fifth- and sixth-graders among existing K-4 schools, open a fifth K-6 school in the vacated building and redraw the attendance map in a way that brought the percentage of impoverished students in each under 20 percent.

Many other districts watching with interest
Faced with integration issues of their own, a number of Twin Cities school districts had been watching Eden Prairie’s struggles with heightened interest. Hopkins, St. Louis Park, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, Osseo, Robbinsdale and Roseville have struggled to balance attendance areas. (For a detailed look at suburban resegregation, check out MinnPost’s past series on the problem here.)

“One school district found a way to move forward and proceed with establishing a better learning environment for all their students,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.

At the same time, he’s not sure Eden Prairie’s decision will embolden other school boards struggling with conflicting community pressures. “These decisions are so local,” he said. “I’m not really sure the extent of the carry-over.”

The only certainty: Administrators throughout the southwestern end of the metro area will be watching to see how many angry families actually follow through on their threat to vote with their feet and move their kids under Minnesota’s open-enrollment law.

“It’s really the right decision for the students in our schools,” said Superintendent Krull. “It’s good for the academic and economic health of our community.”

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