Families interested in surveying the landscape of school options in St. Paul in 2016-17 will have to work harder this winter.
The St. Paul School District has decided not to host its annual School Choice Fair at the spacious RiverCentre downtown, and will limit the event's focus, too, to preschool and kindergarten students.
Shut out of the new event at Washington Technology Magnet School on the city's North End will be district middle schools and high schools, as well as the city's charter schools and private schools.
In April, a district administrator informed school board members during the group's monthly meeting of a possible retooling of the fair, including the idea of taking it "in-house" to a district site that would be cheaper and perhaps better situated for community access.
But it wasn't until charter schools and private schools were given a formal heads-up about the change in a Sept. 17 letter that word of the switch became more widely known, prompting criticism in social media about, among other things, the new narrow focus and the potential inconvenience to families.
Joe Nathan, director of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change, found it ironic that the notice was sent by the head of the district's Office of Family Engagement and Community Partnerships.
District spokeswoman Toya Stewart Downey said Thursday that the district had limited options when it came to booking RiverCentre. It wanted to avoid the weekend of the Martin Luther King Day holiday and believed the other options were too close to deadlines by which parents list their choices, she said.
Was the district purposely shutting out its charter-school competitors?
"There is just no space," she said.
She indicated, too, that the School Choice Fair did not figure prominently in the decisions made by families eyeing schools in the transition years of preschool, kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade. This year, she said, the district sent surveys to more than 6,500 of those families, and of the nearly 700 respondents, "only" about 13 percent said they had attended the School Choice Fair.
She added that while the move to downsize was not budget-related, it will yield a savings. She did not have details on Thursday.
The new event will run from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 9, at Washington Technology Magnet, 1495 Rice St.