Just down the hall from the principal’s office at Cherokee Heights Elementary on St. Paul’s West Side is a gleaming new “Children’s House” classroom, the latest entry in the school district’s popular Montessori options.
The preschool-to-kindergarten offering was designed to fill demand for a model of independent learning that now boasts waiting lists. It’s hoped, too, that it will attract West Side families who’ve made a habit of sending kids to schools outside the neighborhood.
Surveying the scene last week, Principal Melisa Rivera took note of students happily scattered about the room, exploring activities of interest. Asked how many were from the neighborhood, she replied, “Good question.” At the time, she could think of just one.
The struggle to unite school and community continues on the West Side, but not for lack of trying. Beginning Wednesday, the district and a neighborhood group will team up to try to take that communal spirit up a notch with the first of eight monthly events dubbed West Side Wednesdays.
From 4:30 to 7 p.m. on the dual campus of Humboldt Secondary School and Open World Learning Community (OWL), families are being invited to take part in art and dance activities, kick around soccer balls, and in the midst of the festivities, enjoy a meal from El Burrito Mercado.
West Siders for Strong Schools, a community group that at times has found itself at odds with the district, pitched the idea to Superintendent Valeria Silva, who personally signed off on a budget allocation of about $14,000, the superintendent recalled in a visit to Cherokee Heights last week.
Rebecca Noecker, the group’s founder, said that it decided after hosting a forum with district leaders last year about the exodus of students from the neighborhood that “we could talk about the problems and the possible solutions forever.”
The group opted, instead, to do something “tangible and concrete,” she said, and that meant getting people into the schools where they might see talented students and energetic teachers and decide, “Hey, I would like to have that teacher as my child’s kindergarten teacher.”
Enrollment trends have not been favorable. In 2014-15, the most recent year for which district data is available, 48 percent of West Side families listed a neighborhood elementary school as the first choice for their children, 35 percent listed a West Side middle school as a first choice and 20 percent listed a neighborhood high school as the first choice.
But a survey conducted by West Siders for Strong Schools found that while parents did not think highly of West Side schools, they also did not know much about them — a phenomenon pointing to the need for an initiative like West Side Wednesdays, Noecker said.
Tension at times, too
The district-community partnership comes after a replay of what has been a source of frustration for West Siders for Strong Schools: the district’s failure to consult with the group’s members about a major move involving one of the West Side schools.
Two years ago, the district announced it would be moving Open World Learning, a grades 6-12 school, from downtown to the Humboldt campus — a decision that came without any community input and in the face of a recently launched strategic plan emphasizing neighborhood schools as the heart of the community. This year, “totally out of the blue,” Noecker said, West Siders for Strong Schools learned that a Montessori program was being located at Cherokee Heights, again without any heads-up from district leaders.
“It doesn’t feel so great when people say, ‘Here’s your medicine,’ ” she said.
Silva said that the district had to act fast after learning it was being granted state funds to expand the Cherokee Heights offerings, and that with the district’s success with the Montessori model and the absence of such a program on the West Side, it seemed like a best practice worth replicating.
The superintendent moved so quickly, in fact, that she decided that, rather than launching a program in 2016, she would enlist Rivera, a former Montessori principal then leading nearby Riverview elementary school, to start the Children’s House program this fall.
“[Rivera] said, ‘I have all my materials in the basement,’ ” Silva recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s try.’ ”
Among the items contributed by Rivera are the many wooden trays placed within shelves. They are needed in a Montessori setting, she said, because they encourage students to place materials on them and move freely about the room.
“The tray is for control,” she said.
Silva, looking around the classroom, pointed out several African sculptures that she donated to the cause. She also spoke of the value of West Side Wednesdays, saying she agreed to the funding to reconnect with the community and find a common goal.
“We need them as much as they need us,” she said.