How Duluth's school boundaries might be reshaped
These days, some Duluth elementary schools house overcrowded classrooms, while others sit half empty.
Over the past decade, shifting demographics have gradually created imbalances among the city’s public schools. Now, school district leaders are exploring plans that would move hundreds of students in an effort to address disparities.
As Duluth prepares to redraw its attendance boundaries, the big question looming — and one Superintendent Bill Gronseth hopes the community can help answer — is how sweeping the changes should be.
“Some are saying we should just fix the areas that need fixing,” Gronseth said. “And others are saying this is an opportunity to completely change the playing field.”
On Monday, the Duluth school district released three scenarios showing possible outcomes for its boundary study, each of which prioritizes different outcomes and affects the district’s 13 schools in different ways.
Here’s what you need to know about Duluth’s boundary study:
Why is the Duluth school district redrawing its boundary lines?
All school districts have to make adjustments from time to time to keep up with demographic shifts — Minneapolis’ school district is in the midst of discussions about similar adjustments. The parts of town populated with elementary-aged students change as children grow and families move.
Duluth’s Congdon neighborhood is a current hotspot for young families. Classrooms are crowded at Congdon Elementary School, where 594 students occupy a facility that is only supposed to house 525. Lester Park Elementary School has also passed its enrollment capacity.
Duluth last shifted boundaries more than 10 years ago as part of the district’s long-range facilities plan, also known as the “Red Plan,” a $300 million project that included the building of four new schools and the closing of seven old ones.
Going this long without adjusting boundaries is unusual, Gronseth said. The school board deferred action in 2014 and 2017, when studies commissioned showed some buildings in the district were close to full. Last spring, the current school board hired a consulting firm, Cooperative Strategies, to conduct a study of Duluth’s boundaries and recommend changes to be made.
Where are Duluth’s students now?
The total enrollment figures below account for in-district transfers and students who open enroll in Duluth public schools. The percentages of students of color and those receiving free or reduced lunch were calculated based on the number of students enrolled at each school from within its boundaries (not including those who transferred or open enrolled).
What are some of the main factors are being considered in the boundary study?
Uneven enrollments: The primary motivator for Duluth’s boundary study was the fact that a few of its schools are filled to the brim while others are being underutilized.
Demographic disparities: The percentage of students of color and those receiving free or reduced lunch varies significantly from school to school in Duluth, a gap illustrated at the middle and high school levels by the disparities between the eastern and western parts of the district. Some community members believe improving equity between schools should be a primary concern when redesigning boundaries.
Immersion programs: Duluth’s Spanish and Ojibwe immersion programs, which are housed at Lowell Elementary School, have grown more popular than the district initially anticipated, raising questions about space to accommodate the growth that is expected to continue.
Locals have also expressed concerns about geographic proximity to schools and the disruption of social circles, among other things. Though redrawing school boundaries is a semi-regular process, it can be a controversial and emotional one — residents often feel strong ties to their schools.
What are the scenarios being proposed?
These three scenarios were drafted by Cooperative Strategies after consultants hosted work sessions and focus groups with district staff, teachers, parents, students and other residents in the fall.
The enrollment figures below do not account for students who transfer schools or open enroll.
The following maps show how elementary school boundaries would be reshaped. Use the search bars to determine which school a student residing at a particular address would attend under each scenario. For more detailed results, use this lookup tool.
This plan would move 1,425 students in the district, the most of the three proposals. It also does the most to achieve more demographic balance between the middle and high schools. Lowell Elementary School would become a site exclusively for the district’s immersion programs.
Only 528 students would be affected by this plan, and 68 of them would be those enrolled in the Ojibwe immersion program, which would move to Stowe Elementary School in the westernmost part of the district. Enrollment would be more balanced between schools, but demographic inequalities would more or less remain.
A total of 1,056 students would move, making enrollment and demographics more equal at the middle and high schools. Lowell Elementary School would continue to house neighborhood students and the two immersion programs, which could be capped if the facility becomes too full.
How would middle and high school boundaries be affected?
The Duluth school district has two middle schools, Lincoln Park and Ordean East, and two high schools, Denfeld and East.
Geographically, the middle/high school boundary line looks significantly different in each of the three options presented, raising concerns from some parents about the distance between their homes and the schools.
The current setup has been criticized by some residents who claim the existing boundary line perpetuates achievement gaps. Like many other districts across Minnesota, graduation rates and test scores in Duluth were lower on average for students of color and those receiving free or reduced lunch.
Lincoln Park and Denfeld — the middle and high schools on the west side of Duluth, historically the part of town where more working class families lived — currently have more diverse and lower-income student populations than their eastern counterparts. They also have fewer students total.
In 2017, residents led by Denfeld parents formed the Duluth Schools Equity Initiative, a group that has lobbied the district to address perceived inequities between Duluth’s high schools. They and other community groups have called on school administrators and the school board to look at how the distribution of funding and elective opportunities differ at the two institutions.
Only two of the proposed scenarios — one and two — would allow all Duluth elementary schools to feed to a single middle and high school combination. In the third scenario, some students at Lowell Elementary would go on to attend Lincoln Park, while others would head to middle school at Ordean East, depending on where they lived. Some residents have said a split like this is undesirable because it can break up social groups.
What are the next steps?
Cooperative Strategies is collecting feedback on the three scenarios. Community members can fill out a survey online now through Feb. 3. More information about Duluth’s boundary study can be found on the district’s website.
There will also be two meetings for people to ask questions and provide input from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Jan. 22 at East High School and on Jan. 23 at Denfeld High School.
Cooperative Strategies will then draft a recommended proposal, which will be presented to the Duluth school board in February or March. The school board must vote to approve any changes.
When would any changes take effect?
That depends on what’s decided. Gronseth said minor boundary shifts could be implemented as early as next fall, while more drastic changes would require more time and planning.