The wrapping came off the new Riverview elementary school in St. Paul this week, and for the West Side and its schools, hopes are that it's just the start of something good.
The St. Paul school district begins a new era Tuesday emphasizing neighborhood schools as the heart of the community. And perhaps nowhere will it face a tougher test than on the West Side.
There, 60 percent of students leave the neighborhood to attend school elsewhere. Talk of West Side pride too often skips mention of its schools.
But the district has set out to change that, in part by relocating Riverview from its spot atop the Mississippi River bluffs to a new, bigger home at the site of the former Roosevelt elementary.
Parents and children took in the $5.6 million building renovation for the first time on Thursday. In the cafeteria, where bricks have been removed to reveal four large windows, families were welcomed by the principal and schools superintendent, and gave a small cheer when teacher Nicole Slaboch, new to the school, took the microphone and said: "How many of you are excited for art this year?"
Art classes weren't available at the old Riverview. Soon, the district also will make the new school one of two new hubs for after-school activities, Superintendent Valeria Silva said.
Momentum is building at the community level, too. A new group, West Siders for Strong Schools, has formed and is pushing for change both in the short-term — the hoped-for introduction of a secondary-level dual-language program that it says is needed to keep more Riverview graduates on the West Side — and over the long haul, said Rebecca Noecker, a newcomer to the area who's had early success rallying local forces.
Among the group's core members are Larry Lucio, the former Humboldt High School principal whose ouster from the West Side school in 1997 spurred community protest, and Gilbert de la O, a former St. Paul school board member who for years worked as a youth advocate at Neighborhood House.
"I grew up on the West Side when education, athletics and extracurricular activities in our schools brought a strong sense of pride to my community," De la O said last week.
He wants to see a community excited again to send its kids to West Side schools.
Citywide, students return to school this week in a district fully restructured under its "Strong Schools, Strong Communities" plan. Riverview functions as both a community school for West Siders and as a two-way Spanish-English language immersion program that, if pursued to the secondary level, takes kids out of the neighborhood to Highland Park middle and high schools.
Silva, in a recent interview, said that she looked forward to a larger Riverview turning out more Spanish speakers. The thought of so many Latino students not knowing Spanish makes her "hurt inside," she said.
When the superintendent and Principal Melisa Rivera addressed families in the Riverview cafeteria, they spoke in Spanish and in English — and when Silva took her turn, she spoke Spanish first. A Somali translator spoke, too.
The school had 409 students enrolled as of Thursday, up from 360 in 2012-13, Rivera said.
Noecker, community engagement director for AchieveMpls, a nonprofit that raises money for the Minneapolis school district, said that the West Side group came about as result of a coffee shop conversation during which expressions of West Side pride among neighbors did not extend to its schools.
A pipeline out
She did research, taking note of low test scores in the area, and learned more about what she calls a "jagged pipeline," that is, the movement of Spanish-English immersion kids from Riverview out of the neighborhood. The group now is pushing for an immersion program at Humboldt, and more extracurricular activities there, too.
But, Noecker added, "we really don't want to be that group of parents who are always cantankerous and always making trouble." And so, the group is surveying residents to get their perceptions of schools — it's gotten 53 responses and wants 200 — and plans to invite local principals and then the superintendent to its upcoming monthly meetings.
Jackie Turner, the district's chief engagement officer, said this week that current demand for a secondary-level dual-language immersion program is not enough to fill the Highland program, but that if a capacity issue were to arise, "the West Side of the city would be a great place to consider."
At Riverview Thursday, Mylinh Dao, a West Side resident, said she favored the new community-school emphasis, and had never considered sending her daughter, Lily Dao, 8, anywhere but Riverview when she was a kindergartner. Both liked the look of the new school, with Lily taking special note of Noecker's classroom, where the paintbrushes stood neatly in jars, ready to go.
"Art class is going to be my favorite," she said. "I love art."