DULUTH – The one thing most all parents could agree on, it seemed, was that none of the options were right.
Duluth’s school district hosted meetings Wednesday and Thursday nights to gather feedback on the three scenarios released last week showing possible changes to school boundary lines. This redrawing process, which Superintendent Bill Gronseth says is usually done every three to five years to address overcrowding caused by population shifts, hasn’t happened for more than a decade in Duluth.
More than 400 parents attended a loud, emotional meeting Wednesday in East High School atrium, where some yelled questions and criticism at officials conducting the boundary study. Fewer than 200 parents came to Denfeld High School on a snowy Thursday night, a more subdued meeting where feelings still ran high.
The contrast perhaps illustrates the East-West divide the school district said this boundary study is addressing. A disproportionate amount of the district’s students of color and those on free or reduced lunch attend western Denfeld and Lincoln Park Middle School. These schools also have fewer total students than their eastern counterparts.
In the 2018-19 academic year, 74% of test-taking students at East met the state’s reading standards, while just 47% of students at Denfeld were deemed proficient. A similar gap existed between math scores and could also be seen comparing the scores of students at Ordean East Middle School and Lincoln Park.
Parents at both meetings called disparities like these concerning, noting too that Denfeld offers fewer Advanced Placement and College In the School courses than East because it currently has fewer students to sign up for those classes.
But many also argued that these attempts to address the imbalances would cause transportation nightmares, disrupt neighborhoods and potentially diminish the value of the property they purchased with their children’s schooling in mind.
“It’s a complete mess,” said Jody Roberts, whose children are in fifth and third grade at Duluth Edison Charter School and are currently slated to attend East — though that could change depending on how the boundary study affects their central hillside home.
“There’s nothing wrong with West Duluth,” said Roberts, who worries about her children being forced to separate from their friends and their cousins who will attend East. “It’s just not my part of town.”
Danielle Zigich has three children enrolled in the district — one at Stowe Elementary, one at Lincoln Park and one at Denfeld. Only one other family in her neighborhood attends Duluth public schools. Others open enroll in surrounding districts, like Proctor, Hermantown, Wrenshall, Esko and Cloquet.
“You need to figure out why people do not want to be here,” said Zigich, who added she’s been pleased with the western Duluth public schools and thinks a lot of negative perceptions of them come from rumors.
According to data from the district, 2,474 students living in Duluth’s district are enrolled elsewhere. Charter schools snag 1,650 of those students, and another 824 enroll in other school districts.
These figures do not account for those enrolled in private or parochial schools, and students leaving the district’s schools are not accounted for in the three scenarios proposed. Nor are the 385 students open enrolling in Duluth schools from other districts.
Salli Dymond currently sends her kindergartner to a charter school because she thinks Homecroft Elementary is too crowded. She only found out about the potential boundary changes by reading the paper, though they could affect her family greatly down the road.
“I think they missed an opportunity to interact with people who opted out of the Duluth public schools,” Dymond said. “And to our feedback as to why we opted out.”
Fear of change
Discussions of boundary changes prompts flashbacks for Cindy Sward, whose two oldest daughters were forced to move from the now-closed Central High School to East in 2011, when Duluth last implemented boundary changes.
“It was the hardest thing to watch [that] my girls had to go through,” she said. Now, the mother of five is worried her youngest son — a junior at East who was recently picked as a football captain — will have to do the same with the added burden of a bus ride to Denfeld that’s doubly long.
Sward said her family lives in the rural part up the district, up by Rice Lake in the Homecroft Elementary boundary. Like many other families in that part of the city, the commute to Denfeld would be at least 30 minutes longer by car than the commute to East — and the district hasn’t yet said how bus times would be affected.
Lindsey Jungman, on the other hand, is keeping a close eye on how changes would affect the Ojibwe immersion program her kids attend. One scenario currently proposed would move the program to Stowe Elementary on the other side of town.
“It would just die,” Jungman said. “There’s no way it’s sustainable after that move.”
As he fielded questions from parents worried about all the effects the redrawing of school lines could have on their own children, Gronseth — who is stepping down as superintendent at the end of the academic year — said he doesn’t know how any boundary changes will be rolled out. That depends on the scope of what’s decided, though the district has said changes could take place as early as next fall.
Cooperative Strategies, the consulting firm hired to facilitate the study, will analyze feedback from small group discussions at the pair of meetings and answers to the districtwide survey, which is open until Feb. 3.
The firm will then recommend a final scenario to the school board, who would have to vote to approve any changes.
“I think there’s just a lot of fear. Fear of change and fear of being in a place where people are different from you,” said Lindsay Kern, who has a daughter enrolled at Lincoln Park and another at Piedmont. “Our goal as a community is not to be divided despite the challenges.”