Ah, bucolic St. Paul. For so long, it seemed that the city’s public schools would remain oases of calm, not exactly immune to the ills plaguing most urban school districts — declining enrollment, skyrocketing transportation costs, a yawning achievement gap and precarious budget — but not as wracked by conflict as their counterparts, either.
That Halcyon era, if it existed, screeched to a halt in the wee hours Wednesday morning when the St. Paul School Board voted to approve a controversial, three-year restructuring plan that will affect virtually every program in the district.
While the plan enjoys broad support among community leaders, it angered hundreds of parents who, understandably, turned out to lobby for their much-beloved corners of the oasis. Other, crueler school districts long ago put strict limits on the time set aside at board meetings for public comment. St. Paul let everyone speak, so it was 2 a.m. before staff locked up.
Despite the angst, the overhaul plan Superintendent Valeria Silva has been “tweaking” since January looks a lot like the reorganizations underway in several Twin Cities districts. But where other school systems have launched separate initiatives to deal with the academic and financial crises, St. Paul has rolled out one master plan.
Details, including fact-sheets outlining the impact on individual schools and laying out a timeline, can be found here.
The highlights: In an effort to slash busing costs, school choice will be curtailed. The changes will be phased in over several years, however, minimizing the number of students who will be forced to transfer to new schools. Current attendance boundaries will apply for 2011-2012.
The city will be divided into six attendance regions with clearly defined “pathways” from elementary programs to reconfigured middle schools, which will in turn feed particular high schools. Currently, most elementary schools are K-6; under the plan, K-5 schools will now feed middle schools that serve grades 6-8. There will be seven K-8 schools.
Some programs will be consolidated with others, and some will move to different buildings. The most vocal group of aggrieved parents are angry with a scheme to divide the eastside’s popular L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion School into two campuses.
Few programs will be closed; a year ago, the district shuttered eight schools. Starting next fall, the K-12 Open World magnet will no longer serve elementary grades; middle school “viability” will be re-evaluated the next year.
All kids can stay in their current schools, but their parents may have to provide transportation if they end up outside the new attendance boundaries. Next fall’s ninth- and tenth-graders will be bused to their current high school until they graduate.
Because changes to attendance patterns will be phased in over three years, the district says many students may end up graduating to middle or high school before they are affected. Families can apply to schools outside their areas, but must provide transportation and will not be guaranteed space.
“For anybody who is affected, change is tough,” said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and an enthusiastic supporter of the plan. “Anything of this magnitude needs a progressive set of changes.”
Does the plan’s gradual implementation, and Silva’s announcement that it could be subject to more tweaking as it’s rolled out, mean there are more midnight sessions in store? Quite possibly.
The most controversial part of all district reorganizations, the new map, won’t be revealed until Sept. 30, long after next year’s school choice process is concluded and months before the 2012-2013 one begins.
When Minneapolis Public Schools redrew its attendance boundaries in a remarkably similar restructuring two years ago, the district solicited public input during the school year but drew the new map during summer break. By the time the new grid was revealed, many of its staunchest opponents had turned their attention elsewhere.
Once the new boundaries were final, entire neighborhoods shrugged. A few transferred kids a year early en masse to their new programs to start strengthening the schools’ communities.
St. Paul recently hired away MPS’s former school placement and family outreach czar, Jackie Turner. Turner patiently shepherded community groups through the painful redistricting process. The year before, she literally canvassed Minneapolis’ north side to try to lure African-American families back to the schools.
Is Silva expecting a repeat performance in St. Paul? Perhaps. The superintendent told the board that the new plan will help close a budget gap of $30 million — the equivalent of the cost of the district’s current choice system — in part by luring an additional 3,500 students to city schools.
Right now the district enrolls 38,000. Assuming they materialize, the new students will bring an estimated $22 million in revenue.
Riskiest part of plan
This may well be the riskiest part of Silva’s proposal. After several years of campaigning, MPS managed to halt its enrollment decline — not reverse it. And part of the change took place within the district’s relatively affluent southwest neighborhoods, which traditionally lost students to private schools that became pricey in a recession.
Under the plan, the new students will be attracted by more even distribution of resources, by increased rigor and by attractive programming, including a new Mandarin Chinese immersion school to be located in Benjamin Mays Elementary.
That increased rigor is where the plan feels muddiest. While Silva and her civic backers have repeatedly insisted that the main purpose of “Strong Schools, Strong Communities” is to close the achievement gap, the bullet points therein list a series of broad policy shifts that are arguably long overdue but not likely to generate quick results.
The underlying reality likely is that the achievement gap and the budget-healing changes are more intrinsically linked than the plan makes clear. Unless the district succeeds in stemming the fiscal hemorrhaging, it will struggle to reach more and more of its kids, not just the ones already struggling.
The changes spelled out in the plan are classroom reforms that are being implemented in lots of urban districts nationwide to good but not revolutionary effect.
For example, the district will adopt an approach called “managed instruction,” in which the district will oversee curriculum, right down to lesson plans and teaching methods at every school. The idea is to guarantee academic equality and consistency at every school.
The approach has its strong points. Poor kids are often transient, and a standardized approach would expose them to the same material wherever they are enrolled. Plus, it’s easier for academic support staff to help teachers assess pupils and plug gaps.
But detractors complain that it stifles teachers and limits their ability to tailor instruction to their classrooms.
Similarly, a part of the plan that calls for changing principals’ role from building administrator to instructional leader — the master teacher’s master teacher, with coaching and evaluating at the top of their to-do list — is probably a good idea. But absent a wholesale “fresh start,” the change of culture the switch is aimed at bringing about can be slow indeed in mainline public schools.
Other academic changes: Teachers’ use of the more standardized curriculum will be monitored and student progress frequently assessed; the number of students participating in extended-day programming will increase 28 percent; all schools will have academic specialists; and family and mental-health support will increase.
“Our plan will prioritize resources for schools whose students have the greatest needs,” the plan promises. “High-priority schools will provide more time for instruction, more training for teachers. Staff at high-priority schools will meet rigorous selection criteria and classrooms will be staffed based on the level of student needs.”
The direction of the academic overhaul pleases Dane Smith, president of the think-tank Growth & Justice. “It’s a very plausible plan around closing the achievement gap and that goal has to be the Holy Grail for us here in this state,” he said.
“Kids of color are our future,” Smith added. “If we can’t close that gap we have no future.”