Minneapolis school board member: Why I oppose the Southwest High addition

  • Article by: CARLA BATES
  • Updated: December 9, 2013 - 6:04 PM

Resources are unevenly distributed in Minneapolis. Here’s how it happened.

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The Minneapolis public schools have a dilemma (“The city’s strongest schools should not be sacrificed,” Nov. 27). Minneapolis currently has seven high schools spread across three attendance zones. The two high schools in Zone C in the southwest section of town — Southwest and Washburn — are at capacity. And they are growing. In the next three years, high school enrollment in Zone C is expected to increase by 1,000 kids.

Meanwhile, the two high schools in Zone B on the southeast side — South and Roosevelt, are 70 percent full, with 900 open seats at Roosevelt and 300 at South. The district estimates that enrollment will increase in Zone B by 300 in the next three years.

And finally, we have three high schools in Zone A on the North Side — Edison, North and Henry — struggling for enrollment. North has 1,400 open seats; Edison has 500, and Henry has 200. The district estimates that high school enrollment on the North Side will either hold steady or slightly decline in the next three years.

Add it all up and we have about 3,300 open seats in our high schools. In three years, even if enrollment goes up by the expected 1,300 students, we’ll still have 2,000 empty high school seats. Only if the school district were to woo back almost all students who open-enroll or go to private schools would there be a capacity problem in the city as a whole.

So why is the district proposing to spend $40 million on an addition to Southwest High School? Why not simply shift the school boundaries and send more students from overcrowded classrooms in the southwest to the other high schools in our city?

Answer: Because parents at those two schools would rise up in revolt. And they’d have good reason, because currently not all Minneapolis high schools are created equal. In Minneapolis, high schools with higher enrollments have the staff necessary to offer more courses in more subjects than schools with lower enrollments. They offer more art, music, drama, sports and extracurricular activities. They have more-experienced teachers and administrators. All of this supports student achievement and attracts families loathe to change schools — especially if this means their kids will have fewer options.

How did Minneapolis end up with such unequal high schools within the same district? It’s complicated, and it didn’t happen overnight.

When Minnesota started offering open enrollment in 1988, families, especially in the northern half of the city, began sending their kids to St. Anthony, Hopkins, Robbinsdale and other suburban districts.

This — and other issues — set a vicious circle spinning over two decades. The Minneapolis district assigns teachers based on enrollment. To have fewer students means having fewer teachers. To have fewer teachers means fewer subjects and fewer extracurricular options at the secondary level.

To have fewer options leads to having fewer students … and the cycle continues to this day.

I oppose the proposed $40 million addition on Southwest High School, not because I have anything against this high-achieving school, but because I think it’s a Band-Aid approach to a districtwide problem and, therefore, a poor use of a lot of public dollars.

Instead of building an addition, we need to come to grips with the fact that we do not have equitable high schools and we do not have the current — or projected — enrollment to support seven healthy, comprehensive high schools.

This will take leadership from the district and political courage from elected officials at all levels. The racial and class dimensions of all of these issues need to be named. Many isolated groups of parents, teachers and administrators have taken on the task of integrating their high schools and improving achievement — parents at Edison, leaders at Roosevelt, teachers at Henry. The district and the city need to amplify this work and multiply the gains made.

As a school board member, I know we have overcrowding issues, especially at Southwest. But the overcrowding in the southwest section of the city did not happen in a vacuum. We need to do the hard, overdue work of creating the right amount of high-quality, sustainable high schools throughout our city.

 

Carla Bates is a member of the Minneapolis Board of ­Education.

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