A surge of students fills up south Minneapolis’ ‘river schools’

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 23, 2013 - 10:21 PM

More kids mean that closed buildings are being reopened and restored for school district use.

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The renovations at the Howe campus for Hiawatha Community School included 35 new Apple computers for the media room, where Coreen Blau was working.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com,

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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.

  • related content

  • The newly renovated Howe Public School, Minneapolis.

  • Schools in Minneapolis’ Longfellow Community

    • Cooper: 33rd St. and 44th Av. S., opened 1923, closed 2005, reopening and expansion proposed 2013.

    • Dowling: 39th St. and W. River Parkway, opened 1924.

    • Hiawatha: 42nd St. and 42nd Av. S., opened 1916.

    • Howe: 38th St. and 43rd Av. S., opened 1927, closed 2005, reopened 2013.

    • Johnson: 31st St. and 38th Av. S., opened 1910, closed 1941.

    • Longfellow: 31st St. and 31st Av. S., opened 1918, closed 2010, reopened 2011 for special programs.

    • Monroe: Franklin Av. and 24th Av. S., opened 1878, closed 1966.

    • Seward: 24th and 28th Av. S., first building opened 1887, replaced by new building in 1966, expansion proposed 2013.

    • Simmons: 38th St. and Minnehaha Av. S., opened 1905, closed 1942.

    • Stowe: 28th St. and 40th Av. S., opened 1923 as a portable building, closed 1941.

    • Sanford Middle School: 36th St. and 42nd Av. S., opened 1926.

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