It's rarely easy to shutter a school and force students to relocate. Closing beloved schools can be devastating for communities that identify strongly with their neighborhood institutions.
That's why emotions are running high in St. Paul as communities are pushing back against a St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) plan to close some schools. In passionate appeals to district leaders, some parents say they want to keep their children in nearby neighborhood schools.
Others argue that the schools under consideration are better for kids because they're smaller. Still others think that because the changes would affect so many kids of color and immigrant families, the moves are discriminatory.
Yet the big-picture reality for SPPS is that its smallest-enrollment schools are not equitable or sustainable. They simply don't have enough students to generate the budgets needed to provide the same range of classes and programming as larger schools.
At the heart of the Envision SPPS restructuring plan is getting the district's elementary schools to a size that ensures access to a well-rounded education for all students. That includes specialist teachers in areas like art, music and science — programs currently unavailable at some schools. And not that long ago, some families protested against the proposed elimination of those programs in some schools.
The plan would eliminate five schools as well as shift students and staffers from other buildings that would be repurposed. The schools that would close are elementary schools Highwood Hills, Jackson, John A. Johnson and Wellstone, as well as LEAP High School. Several other schools in the district would be affected by the changes, which would have an impact on a total of nearly 3,000 students.
The closures and restructurings are tough calls but ones that should be made. SPPS enrollments have fallen dramatically during the past decade, driven by declining birthrates and a rise in school choice options.
In an early October report, board members learned that 16,058 of the city's school-aged children who could have been in district schools in 2019-20 instead attended charter schools or schools in other districts. The district's enrollment dropped from 36,872 in 2019 to a projected 32,594 this year. That resulted in too many schools with too few students to bring in the per-pupil funding needed to hire specialists, district leaders say.
To maintain ideal staff levels and provide equitable class offerings, the administration argues that the district should have a minimum of 450 students in every elementary school and 720 in middle schools. District officials say that if they do nothing, St. Paul will have twice as many low-enrollment schools by 2024.
As Superintendent Joe Gothard told board members, the changes would be difficult for staff and the school communities, "But it is something we must do based on the reality of our current and future enrollment."
Students, families and others will have at least one more opportunity to make their thoughts known to board members at a public hearing 5:30 p.m. Nov. 30 at district headquarters, 360 Colborne St., St. Paul. To sign up to speak and for specifics about the proposal, go to spps.org/Page/31813.
Though it's heartening that so many families and community members feel so strongly about their schools, many may have to accept that students will have to change buildings. We only hope that parents and others will be able to channel their passion over closures into building and supporting successful programs at their new locations.