Parents worry that east-metro schools face closure

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 20, 2011 - 10:41 PM

The future of Harambee and Crosswinds schools is expected to be determined in November. Options include closure or restructuring.

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Second-graders Elijah Robinson and Olivia Magnuson read together during a recent class at Harambee Elementary in Maplewood.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Hundreds of parents are using social media, letters and phone calls to lambaste East Metro Integration District (EMID) school board members who are debating whether to close two experimental schools that political leaders once envisioned would end segregation as well as close the achievement gap.

Wednesday, at their regular monthly meeting, EMID school board members will winnow their options. Then, in November, they will make a final decision on how the district will proceed.

The action follows a tense three-hour meeting last week in which parents accused EMID board members of "deceptively" pushing the closure of Harambee Elementary and Crosswinds Arts and Science School, which includes sixth through 10th grades, without community input.

"This entire process hasn't been transparent," said Tara Goebel, who has three children in the district's schools. "It was pushed on to us in such an urgent manner."

"I have an eerie feeling that they've already decided to shut down our schools," said Kim Zaiman, a mother of two.

Board chairwoman Cristina Gillette said she will work to communicate better with parents and emphasized that she and the other EMID board members have not yet made a decision regarding the schools.

"Any information these parents want, we'll get it to them," Gillette said. "We want input from all the stakeholders in this process."

Harambee Elementary, in Maplewood, and Crosswinds, in Woodbury, are both less than 15 years old. They were founded as part of EMID, a multi-district collaboration involving St. Paul and nine surrounding districts.

EMID's original goal was to provide a multicultural learning space for students and integration development for staff from participating districts. In recent years, legislators have also asked the district to come up with ways to close the achievement gap between minority and white students.

With a $9.5 million annual operating budget, the year-round schools offer International Baccalaureate, environmental science and art magnet programs, and they have drawn deep community support.

But test scores at the schools were lower than at many of the participating districts' own neighborhood schools, prompting the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale and Mahtomedi districts to pull out of the collaboration in 2009.

Funding could be in jeopardy

This past session, legislators proposed cutting the $64 million given in integration aid, a fund on which EMID largely depends. Legislators ultimately resolved to keep the funding in place until 2014 and appoint a committee that would determine how the state will spend the money.

The EMID board, at the advice of an outside consulting firm, has proposed that the schools either close, be restructured or be placed under a different leadership, such as a charter school.

"We know the state is looking for change with the integration districts," Gillette told about 200 parents who had gathered at a community forum last week. "It's important for us to identify what's important to our member districts' families and map out our own future and not wait for it to be defined for us."

If the two magnet schools close, 800 students will be displaced and more than 100 staff members and teachers will be laid off.

Many parents have suggested that the schools be placed under the leadership of Perpich Center for Arts Education, a public agency dedicated to promoting arts education.

Wednesday's meeting will begin at 5 p.m. at Harambee Elementary, 30 E. County Road B, Maplewood.

Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib

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