Dateline Minneapolis: 'E' is for enrollment

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2011 - 7:04 PM

A baby boomlet and the bad economy are boosting enrollment in Minneapolis' kindergarten classrooms and promising to bring higher enrollment for years to come.

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Carina Rosati, 5, gave her teacher, Melanie Mathiowetz, some classroom supplies during kindergarten orientation last week at Hale Elementary School in south Minneapolis. Surging enrollment is pushing up class sizes at several schools, making teachers’ jobs tougher.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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The colorful block letters and numbers above Melanie Mathiowetz's door spelled out the night's mission: KINDERGARTEN 101.

The classroom teemed with 4- and 5-year-olds who were meeting their new teacher as their parents squeezed under child-sized desks, filling out forms and checking off supply lists to prepare their children for today, the first day of class for kindergarten students in Minneapolis.

The scene played out in dozens of classrooms across the city last week, as the district prepares to welcome an estimated 4,250 kindergarten students, its largest class in more than a decade.

The uptick in enrollment has been both a boon and a bane.

Faced with declining enrollment for years, the district welcomes any signs that a rebound is on the horizon. But district officials weren't prepared for the crush of new students, forcing them to scramble this spring to find solutions.

Since May, administrators have shuffled programs to clear space for five new kindergarten classrooms, four in southwest Minneapolis and one on the city's south side.

One result: Class sizes at several schools swelled well beyond what was called for in a 2008 referendum to lower the district's teacher-student ratio.

The harried decision-making could mark just the beginning of an enrollment renaissance in the Minneapolis schools sparked by a rise in birth rates and a downturn in the economy, which has kept more families in the city and forced them to opt for public education over costly private options.

"This is a really good challenge," said Courtney Cushing Kiernat, a district administrative resource specialist and project manager for Changing School Options.

Based on a review of U.S. Census data, the enrollment spike isn't a blip or one-time event. By fall 2015, there could be 2,000 more public school students in Minneapolis, the district's review found.

With no closed schools to reopen and almost no empty classrooms in southwest Minneapolis, the district can't pack any more kindergarten students in its already-crowded classes.

Early elementary enrollment is also surging in south and northeast Minneapolis, which both have vacant buildings and classrooms to handle the influx.

North Minneapolis is the one portion of the city resistant to the trend.

With a bevy of charter schools snatching away hundreds, if not thousands, of district students each year, and a depressed, foreclosure-racked housing market, the North Side has a glut of vacated buildings and classrooms.

But planned cuts to integration aid and restructuring of the Choice is Yours program -- which affords more than 2,000 students, most of them in north Minneapolis, the opportunity to leave the district for schools in the western suburbs -- could alter projections.

Enrollment "is not an exact science," Cushing Kiernat said. "There are so many factors at play."

Crowding concerns

At Hale Community School on East 54th near Lake Nokomis, more than a dozen students are on the waiting list for full-day kindergarten, forcing families to settle for the less desirable half-day classes, Principal Lillie Pang said.

Autumn Bernhardt spent a recent weeknight helping her younger daughter, Rosemary, adjust to life at Hale, the same elementary her high school-aged daughter attended years ago.

"There are a lot more rooms being used than I can recall, Bernhardt said as she eyed the throng of families navigating in and out of classrooms.

The crowding is putting pressure on teachers, with kindergarten classes packed with as many as 27 children and class sizes that rise into the 30s in upper elementary.

When Mathiowetz began at Hale almost a decade ago, she'd have 18 to 20 students per class; for the past few years, it's been 25 or more, which has made her job tougher.

"This is the No. 1 complaint of parents," said Lynn Nordgren, president of the district's teacher union. "They leave because the classes are too big -- or they don't come at all."

Cushing Kiernat and David Dudycha, a former Minneapolis school administrator now serving as an enrollment consultant, hope to present a long-term plan to school board members in October to deal with enrollment.

Solutions could include adding on new space at crowded buildings or constructing new schools -- fixes that would require more staff in a district that isn't financially strapped, but not flush with cash either.

The district could be forced to change attendance boundaries, an approach that produced mixed results under Changing School Options, an 18-month-long process to manage declining enrollment.

Now the tables have turned.

"It's almost like a puzzle," Cushing Kiernat said. "When there's friction and pieces don't fit, we have to reevaluate."

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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  • Katie Fugate, 5, and her mom, Janine, met with teacher Julie Olson at Hale’s kindergarten orientation. “We couldn’t be more excited,” Janine said.

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