The St. Paul school board on Monday night signaled plans to spare three schools from closure as part of a district restructuring plan set for action later this week.
The announcement followed weeks of emotional testimony and feedback from communities determined to save their schools — with many of the more fervent voices coming from LEAP High School and Wellstone and Highwood Hills elementary schools.
The three schools were removed from the potential closure list Monday under a revised recommendation laid out by Board Member Jim Vue, who said school visits and conversations among board members factored into the board's decision.
The board is expected to vote Wednesday on the Envision SPPS plan, which when introduced on Oct. 11 called for five schools to be closed and vacated and for students and staffers to be uprooted from five others. Now, just two elementary schools, John A. Johnson and Jackson, are at risk of being shuttered.
"We are not going to add anything new to this," Vue said of the revised plan. "We just basically scaled down the proposal."
The aim of the changes has been to create the efficiencies needed to give all elementary students access to a well-rounded education that includes art, science, music and other subjects taught by specialist teachers, district administrators said during a series of presentations held in recent weeks.
But the Envision SPPS plan also had interlocking parts — students at Wellstone on the North End would be steered to a West Side school, for example — several of which would no longer be in play. Jackie Turner, the district's chief operations officer, cautioned the board that some schools are dropping to as few as 104-110 kids.
Critics of the plan have said the proposed closings would bring unnecessary pain to communities still struggling with COVID-19 and its effects on learning.
The district sought to encourage community engagement, not just with hearings and public comment sessions, but also with school-based meetings, including one at LEAP High that drew 157 people. LEAP serves new immigrants, and its advocates have turned out in strong numbers at recent board meetings.
At a Nov. 11 hearing, Julio Almanza, a former schools superintendent in Duluth, said the district failed to recognize the unique nature of LEAP. To many staff members, students and parents, he said, it's not just a school, it's family.
"They all function together to provide a safe learning environment for the kids," he said.
Sarita Toledo, a senior at LEAP who is from Mexico, said she knows of students who spoke little or no English and attended LEAP and a traditional high school. Most preferred LEAP's smaller class sizes, she said, while elsewhere, "they weren't truly learning."
Teacher Tom Doyle said he had just welcomed a new student from Afghanistan and that the teen had been assisted by a student from Somalia in finding a place to pray.
The plight of Wellstone Elementary had been perplexing and infuriating to many because, at 500-plus students, it met the district's standards for what was needed to fund and staff a well-rounded school. Closing a building also tested the concept — advanced by a prior administration — of schools being the heart of the community.
"Wellstone is a pillar in the North End community," said Tracy Tomberlin, a parent who also went to the school — as did her mother. "I love the fact that my son is the third generation in my family making wonderful memories inside these same walls."
The school is a Spanish dual-language immersion site, and its students would have been sent to a similar program at the Riverview West Side School of Excellence.
Highwood Hills serves a large number of Somali families.
The board is holding its final hearing on the Envision SPPS plan at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at district headquarters, 360 Colborne St. Administrators also plan to spell out the potential impacts of the board's proposed changes before Wednesday's vote.