Cold, hard cash is part of evidence that Judy Sharken Simon has seen to show that young families are repopulating the eastern edge of south Minneapolis.

“I have girls in high school, and they made a ton of money this summer baby-sitting,” said Sharken Simon, who has seen many young families in her Longfellow community.

Those young families have also meant a resurgence for the public schools in the area, after a painful period of contraction that made families in the “river schools” area question the district’s commitment to their part of the city. Four schools in the neighborhoods loosely running close to the Mississippi River have reopened, expanded or are proposed to do so.

Sharken Simon’s family lives between two elementary schools a mere four blocks apart. The district shut both in 2005. But it opened one of them, Howe, last month, after a $6 million renovation that symbolizes the district’s reinvestment in the area. The district now is proposing to expand on that by renovating and expanding the closed Cooper in addition to expanding Seward Montessori.

“Having both of them sit empty and unused wasn’t great for the neighborhood,” Sharken Simon said. “They’re big spaces, so it felt empty. I’m very happy that [Howe’s] open.”

That’s not all that’s happened. Farther south, the district spent $16 million last school year to upgrade the Keewaydin campus of Lake Nokomis Community School, which is a K-8 pairing by grade levels of the Keewaydin and Wenonah buildings. The construction added classrooms for 180 students, as well as a theater, gym and cafeteria. The district in 2004 proposed closing Wenonah, but parents won a reprieve after protesting that enrollment was rising.

“It’s hard to believe that that was nine years ago,” said Susan Maas, one of the parents who rallied against that closing.

Numbers still rising

Some say the area’s enrollment boost reflects a turnover of homes once occupied by aging couples. Others say the recession-driven dip in home prices kept young suburb-bound families in place long enough to try city schools. Still others credit the resurgence of Sanford Middle School, where enrollment has climbed steadily, for families sticking with city schools. Indeed, the district proposes using space at Howe to handle some of Sanford’s overflow of sixth-graders when the area produces a predicted 300 more middle-schoolers by 2017.

Howe already has 170 students in third through fifth grades and serves as the upper half of a prekindergarten through fifth grade pairing with Hiawatha school, which has 275 students just four blocks south. They’re jointly known as Hiawatha Community School.

“They’re smaller schools, and smaller schools are more attractive,” Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said at Howe’s opening day in September.

Deb Regnier, principal for Hiawatha Community School, marvels at Howe’s transformation. “The first time I walked through, it was a mess,” she said. The gym floor had buckled, ceiling tiles had fallen, the roof leaked and the school was unheated. Now its vintage woodwork gleams.

“We really wanted to keep a lot of the old-school charm and infuse it with the technology of today,” she said.

AC and energy efficiency

That meant a thorough revamp of mechanical systems, more energy-efficient windows and air conditioning, which made Howe the envy of its sister school when the school year opened with record heat.

There was an electrical upgrade that supports such features as a 35-computer media center and the iPads that fifth-graders use. Lockers have been installed, but the old-fashioned cloakrooms provide storage.

Teacher Jay McGowan particularly likes the new windows that filter out solar radiation, meaning shades don’t need to be adjusted to keep classrooms from baking, Classroom technology has also improved. McGowan is one of three teachers from the old Howe to return. He’s in his 29th year of teaching at Howe or Hiawatha.

For neighbors, having Howe busy again means it’s no longer an eyesore with overgrown shrubs and a drain on the neighborhood’s psyche. “We’re thrilled to have it filled with children again,” neighbor Erica Marston said.

The decision to reopen the school followed years of debate. An early neighborhood-based shared-use concept for various users to operate there came to naught. A charter school offer in 2009 to buy Howe and Cooper was rebuffed. A housing redevelopment proposed for Howe fell through when the neighborhood insisted that the schoolhouse not be razed.

The district got four offers for the school again in 2011, including two from charter schools. But a proposal by area resident and school board member Carla Bates that the square block become an athletic field for nearby Sanford intervened.