Five schools would close and remain empty and many programs would be merged amid sweeping changes being proposed for St. Paul Public Schools.

School board members were briefed Monday on recommendations that take into account declining enrollment and a desire to ensure all students have access to a "well-rounded education" — most significantly, officials say, specialist teachers in areas like art, music and science.

The Envision SPPS plan, if approved by the board in November, would leave vacant four elementary sites — Highwood Hills, John A. Johnson, Jackson and Wellstone — plus LEAP High School. But there are many other changes, too, and when taken together they could affect 2,949 students, many of whom would find themselves in different buildings.

"There is an impact in every area of the city," said Jackie Turner, the district's chief operations officer.

Care was taken to avoid creating inequities, such as higher concentrations of poor students at specific schools, Turner said Monday.

But the shuttering of buildings and stripping away of classroom life from other sites challenges the district's previous intentions of making its schools the heart of their respective communities.

St. Paul, like many other public school systems, has been hurt by declining birthrates and a rise in school choice options.

In a report last week, board members learned that 16,058 of the city's school-aged children attended charter schools or used open enrollment to go to other districts in 2019-20. A result was too many schools with too few students to bring in the per-pupil funding needed to hire specialists, district leaders say.

Superintendent Joe Gothard told board members he realized the changes could be difficult for community and staff members, "but it is something we must do based on the reality of our current and future enrollment."

To get to ideal staffing levels, Turner said the district should have a minimum of 450 students in every elementary school and 720 in the middle schools, prompting the proposed closures and a range of interlocking moves under the Envision SPPS plan.

Closing John A. Johnson on the East Side would send the students to nearby Bruce Vento Elementary. Closing Jackson Elementary in Frogtown — which now serves as both a community school and a Hmong Dual Language program — would send the Dual Language students to Phalen Lake on the East Side and the general-ed students to Maxfield Elementary in the Summit-University neighborhood.

District officials are proposing a new building for the Bruce Vento site, and it could be completed in three to four years, Tom Parent, the district facilities director, said on Monday.

Highwood Hills would be closed and its students allowed to move to other East Side community schools or district magnet schools.

Students at LEAP High School, which serves students who are new to the country, would go to schools like Como Park Senior High or Central High, which have language academies, or to an alternative setting.

Board Member Jim Vue said he was concerned about the fate of Highwood Hills families who stuck with the school rather than join many others — most of them Somali — who have sent their children to charter schools instead.

"I just don't want to make it look like we're just shuffling those families around," he said.

The district will no longer offer a Montessori middle school due to lack of family interest and would repurpose that building — Parkway Middle School on the East Side — to be a new Hmong Dual Language program for middle schoolers.

Students in the Wellstone Spanish Dual Language immersion program on the North End would relocate to the Riverview West Side School of Excellence.

Obama Elementary in the Summit-University area would be recast as a districtwide middle school as well as a Montessori elementary school for students who now attend Montessori programs at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School and Cherokee Heights Elementary.

The district also is reviving a hotly contested plan to close and relocate Galtier Community School to Hamline Elementary — a recommendation that was narrowly defeated in 2016 when Galtier parents rallied against it.

Turner said Galtier would be repurposed as an early childhood learning hub, which she hopes answers the community's call for a viable building to remain in that part of the Hamline-Midway area.

Most of the proposed changes would take effect in September 2022, with the school communities involved expected to have a say in their implementation. The public also can weigh in before board action on Nov. 16.

Virtual information sessions that include live questioning via a chat function are set for Oct. 26 and Nov. 8 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

The school board is hosting in-person listening sessions at district headquarters, 360 Colborne St., on Oct. 28 and Nov. 11 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The sessions also will be live streamed.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109