Minnesota's first self-governing school may close over the protests of parents, a casualty of too-few high-quality teachers fluent in French and a drop in enrollment.
Opened just 16 months ago, the Pierre Bottineau French Immersion school in north Minneapolis is projected to lose about $100,000 because it has lost 17 students this school year. The school's board, which is made up of community members, has recommended that it close at the end of this school year, surprising parents and the district.
"I've never seen my daughter blossom like she has here," said a tearful LaCrisha Wiley, who said her first-grader counts backward and forward and sings in French.
The district and parents will meet next week about options to keep the K-4 school open. The ultimate decision is up to Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson because the school has a three-year performance contract with the district. Its board governs the school, but staff members make decisions from curriculum to purchases.
The self-governed school concept is based on the idea that those closest to a classroom can make the best decisions for students. It mimics many features of charter schools, but within a district framework. The Minneapolis district agreed to the union-backed concept as one of a handful of "new schools" it hopes can make progress on the state's student achievement gap.
Many of those who have left the school were attracted to it from outside the immediate vicinity, such as Columbia Heights or Brooklyn Center, said one parent, Anissa Hollingshead. She and others cited discipline issues that need to be addressed to keep such parents. But she called keeping the immersion school vital in giving North Side families choices.
In a letter to parents this week, the school blamed competition for highly qualified French teachers and a drop in enrollment from 116 at the start of the school year to 99 now.
The school competes with immersion schools in Edina and St. Paul for Francophone teacher talent while having a more challenging student body; two-thirds come from families in poverty. "The biggest difference is the urban setting," said Bottineau Director Tina Maynor. "It just requires a really excellent teaching staff that's prepared for that."
Representatives of the Edina and St. Paul districts say that recruiting immersion teachers is more challenging, requiring leaders to develop extensive networks nationally and abroad. Principal Fatima Lawson of St. Paul's L'Etoile du Nord said applicants often will have high-content knowledge or French fluency, but finding both is much harder.
Parents say the prospect of losing a program they felt as though they were making a commitment to is upsetting. Some say they knew their students would be behind on English skills early on in an all-French environment, with the payoff being eventual dual proficiency as they aged. But switching early to another school leaves them at a potential disadvantage, some fear.
The self-governed school concept was the brainchild of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, which moved to become a charter school authorizer in 2011 after watching Bottineau's long struggle to open.
A second self-governed school opened this fall in Lakeville, using the 2005 law that authorized them, and another is under development in Elk River, said Bob Wedl, a former state commissioner of education and advocate for such schools.
"It's unfortunate," he said of the Bottineau board's recommendation.
The district has committed to meet with parents Dec. 28 to talk about changes that might help the school stay open and raise enrollment, raising questions about whether it would be an immersion school or merely have a French-enriched curriculum, and whether it would be self-governed.
Associate Superintendent Sara Paul said the district wants the self-governing model to continue, and said parents seem to want to add some new blood to the school's board. She said the degree to which such a school could remain French-speaking remains to be discussed with parents.
Losing that would be a deal-breaker for some. "We're here because of the French, and if there's no French available, we have other options," said Jeanette Woessner, a Northeast resident.
But some North Siders feel they lack other options for enrolling their students in magnet schools that aren't racially isolated.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib