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Parents want school they can call their own

  • Article by: Emily Johns
  • Star Tribune
  • July 1, 2009 - 11:07 PM

In school districts, it happens all the time.

Engaged, politically savvy parents feel they're not being listened to, and the district hears about it. A lot.

In the Minneapolis public schools, the district is embarking on a plan to downsize. It has too much space for too few students and is trying to close some schools, change how students are assigned to schools and use the money it saves to pay for programming and improving the education that it delivers.

When a plan proposed this spring was declared "DOA," or "dead on arrival," by School Board Chairman Tom Madden, the district went back to the drawing board and will propose a revised plan late this summer.

And one group of parents is working hard to make sure their voices are heard.

In southwest Minneapolis, a group of parents in the "F2" attendance area, which includes the East Harriet and Kingfield neighborhoods, feels the district's approach to establishing a community school for the area, which has long been without one, is unworkable.

The lack of a community school in the area means that neighbors "don't all know each other," said Jane Onsrud, a mother with two children at Lake Harriet Community School.

A community school for the neighbors, who send their 537 kids in grades K-5 to 27 different Minneapolis public schools, "is a beautiful vision for this neighborhood," Onsrud said. "Kids can walk to school together, and the school building could become a public meeting place that's meaningful."

"Kids could be good friends with neighbor kids," added mom Allison Valencia, whose daughter will start kindergarten at Windom Spanish Immersion in the fall.

This spring, the district agreed. Its original "Changing School Options" proposal suggested assigning the K-5 "Lyndale Community School" as the school for the area.

But the neighbors don't think all their kids, when added to Lyndale's current attendance area, will fit. The district is assuming that only about 300 of the students from F2 will show up, thinking that hundreds will remain at the magnet schools they currently attend.

Many of the parents are suggesting a plan that would establish a dual-campus, K-8 program at Lyndale and Clara Barton Open School. Students would spend their early years at Lyndale, then move on to Barton. It would make room for everybody, they say, although they acknowledge it would displace students that currently attend the popular Open Program at Barton.

But both the Barton Leadership Council and Lyndale's PTO have sent the message, for various reasons, that they think it's a terrible idea.

The F2 parents are unhappy. And that is most definitely not a secret to school administrators.

"The community has been very, very, very vocal and very engaged" in the "Changing School Options" process, said Susan Eilertsen, the chief communications officer for the Minneapolis public schools. "They're passionate, they're well-organized, and we've received hundreds of letters, e-mails and phone calls."

But the district's downsizing "is not about one area, one school, one boundary line," she said. "Because one group is more vocal than another doesn't mean that every member of the Minneapolis public schools community doesn't have an equal right to be heard."

The issue is one that school districts deal with all the time, especially those in urban, high-poverty settings. Many low-income communities can't organize as well as their more well-off counterparts, whether because of language barriers, parents working the night shift at a second job, or just a lack of familiarity with the process.

So the district has to balance the loudest, best-organized voices with the quiet voices that take some coaxing to emerge.

The original Changing School Options plan would have affected more than 10,000 of the district's 32,500 students. Moving even one school boundary can have a domino effect.

"That's why it's taking so long" to propose another plan, Eilertsen said.

Until then, she said, all parents should know: "It's all still under consideration."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460

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