Enrollment has tumbled in the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts this fall as the two systems work through major redesigns.
School board members in St. Paul learned recently the state's second-largest district is down 2,204 students from a year ago — the steepest annual decline in a steady four-year slide.
The 6.3% drop translates to $19.4 million in lost revenue, according to Marie Schrul, the district's chief financial officer, who advised board members last week to move to stem the losses and corral costs. This year's decline, she said, "really takes people aback."
The board plans to vote next week on an Envision SPPS consolidation plan that would close and vacate five schools, and uproot students and staff members from five others. The action comes amid renewed concerns over school climate and safety — issues that families have cited in the past as cause to leave the district.
Officials acknowledge the structural changes will not boost student numbers in the short term. Losses, in fact, are expected. But they hope for an eventual rebound based on related action to ensure all elementary students have access to a well-rounded education including art, science, music and other subjects taught by specialist teachers.
Minneapolis Public Schools can attest that restructuring results in losses.
Enrollment has dropped this fall at a sharper rate than district leaders had projected. As of Oct. 1, the district had 29,580 students, down about 7.6% from last school year. Before the pandemic, the city's public schools had more than 33,500 students during the fall of 2019.
Across the district, kindergarten enrollment is slightly higher (1.8%) than last year, but also lower than projected.
Eric Moore, the district's accountability, research and equity officer, attributed the drop to a combination of factors.
District leaders anticipated a dip in student numbers after implementation of a comprehensive district design that shifted attendance boundaries and relocated magnet schools toward the center of the city.
"Anytime you have a boundary change, you typically see some number of students leaving," Moore said. He added that the pandemic and the uprising after the murder of George Floyd also affected family decisions about schools.
"We're still in the process of determining what can be attributed to what piece or what factor," Moore said.
The district expects some younger children to return to school now that vaccines are available for children 5 and older. More open immigration policies under the Biden administration also may bring more students into Minneapolis schools, district leaders say.
"We're going to have a more accurate understanding of our enrollment by about January," Moore said.
In St. Paul's rollout of its Envision SPPS plan, the district cited student flight to charter schools and to other districts through open enrollment as major factors in its declines. Administrators have shared with board members a list of 31 charter schools that opened or expanded in the city during the past 10 years.
Class size limits negotiated by the St. Paul Federation of Educators also were cited during an October board meeting as barriers to opening additional seats in popular schools.
Board Member John Brodrick said then that he agreed that the district was handcuffed by such limitations. But he said he also had heard from people who contend the district has come up short in delivering a well-rounded education, a safe and orderly environment and high standards for student behavior.
Since then, school climate and safety issues have surfaced at several district high schools.
Hundreds of students walked out of Highland Park High School over what they described as the school's "sexual assault culture," prompting an apology and a promise of corrective action by the school's principal.
After a walkout and a fight that spilled out of Central High School, Principal Christine Vang announced last week that the district was sending in five community ambassadors to walk the hallways, plus another school support liaison.
On Monday, a student at Harding High brought a loaded gun to school. No threats were made, but the administration was made aware of the weapon via a tip to the school's security staff. Police and the district's security and management team were immediately contacted, Principal Be Vang said in a letter to families.
Laura Olson, the district's security and emergency management director, said Wednesday the school's security staff moved the student to a secure location and "safely separated the individual from the firearm," which was in a backpack.
The student was arrested by police and taken into custody without incident, she said.
Last week, Brodrick asked administrators how much progress was being made in hiring people to help address the academic, social and emotional needs of students, among other purposes, as outlined in the district's planned use of federal pandemic funds.
He was told it was early and the district still had many other openings to fill.
"Some of that work is going to be delayed," Superintendent Joe Gothard said. "It does not mean those needs go away. We are working as hard as we can to be creative without putting additional burdens on individuals who are already working hard to see what other supports we can put in place."