Families streamed into Hamline Elementary in St. Paul on a beautiful sunny day last week — new believers in the idea of a "Mighty Midway School."
Among them were Antonio Rodriguez and wife Anna Peters. Six months ago, Peters couldn't bear to think about where the couple would send their daughters after the school board voted to close Galtier Community School and force a merger with Hamline this fall.
But on Thursday, Rodriguez threw his arms around Hamline Principal Kristin Reilly, who in turn informed a visitor of a secret she'd be sharing with the staff the following day: The school now had enough students to add an art teacher.
"It's exciting," she said. "It gives us hope for the future."
Passion, stability and positive vibes are sorely needed in a district bleeding students, and just last week, St. Paul Public Schools projected the loss of another 1,877 kids. Perhaps not coincidentally, officials also downplayed talk of the goal to have 450 students per school that drove last year's Envision SPPS school-closing decisions and stressed, instead, the desire to have enough students to keep an elementary school "sustainable."
But schools that survived the recent cuts aren't in the clear just yet when it comes to potential closings and mergers down the line — not even Hamline.
Before Thursday's community event, Rodriguez said he had been discouraged that the district would not commit earlier to keeping Hamline open for at least five years so none of this year's kindergartners would again be uprooted.
Jackie Turner, the district's chief operations officer and the public face of the Envision SPPS school consolidation plan, confirmed last week: "I can't promise that any school would be around in five years," citing declining birth rates.
But a review of how families responded to decisions to close or remake their schools did uncover one such pledge.
West Side pride
Envision SPPS was approved in December in response to declining enrollment and with the intention of giving all elementary students a well-rounded education including art, science and other subjects taught by specialist teachers.
The school board saved three schools from closure: LEAP High School and the North End's Wellstone and the East Side's Highwood Hills elementary schools.
Citywide, about 76 % of the families affected by the Envision changes have accepted the school destinations proposed for them, Turner said.
The board's decision to protect Wellstone meant its Spanish dual-language immersion students no longer would be moving to the Riverview West Side School of Excellence. Plans remained in place, however, to pull Montessori students from Cherokee Heights Elementary on the West Side to J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet in the Summit-University area.
West Side residents who had been willing to accept the loss of the Montessori program as long as Riverview gained kids felt blindsided. In a spirited virtual forum with Turner and Superintendent Joe Gothard earlier this year, they demanded the district invest in its West Side schools.
Turner said last week about 70% of Cherokee Heights families have elected to stay behind and embrace its shift from Montessori to a community school model. Preliminary numbers indicate it could have 218 students in the fall, up from 157 this year.
Asked how a school of that size could ensure kids are getting a well-rounded education, Turner said the district is providing federal American Rescue Plan dollars — specifics of which will be known when schools turn in their budgets on Friday.
She added that the West Side is somewhat hemmed in, and as a result, the district would not leave that part of the neighborhood without a community school.
She also expressed the hope that families living in the Hamline neighborhood would commit to their community school.
Clayton Howatt, a former Galtier PTO president who ran unsuccessfully for the school board last year, said he has his doubts.
Galtier shifts to Hamline
Six years ago, Howatt successfully campaigned to save Galtier from closure. Last week, he repeated points he raised then about how the district's busing policy makes it easy for Midway area families to send their kids to elementary schools like St. Anthony Park and Chelsea Heights, instead.
"Will the elimination of the Galtier choice be enough to hold enrollment [at Hamline]?" Howatt wrote in an email. "I'm guessing it will slow the loss but not stop it. It will really be up to the parents at Hamline. Will they put in the hard work to recruit families and keep pressure on the district to ensure adequate investment? Of course, that is not how it should work, but sadly that is the reality."
Working in the school's favor is its partnership with Hamline University.
Nate Roisen, a parent with a kindergartner at Galtier, said six months ago that he might consider a school with more resources than Hamline. But he and his wife, Kari Guida, were at the school Thursday, both excited about the choice. So is their son Harrison.
"He told me, 'I dreamt that I'm going to Hamline University,'" Roisen said.
Rodriguez commended the Hamline community for sending postcards to Galtier families welcoming them to the school. His arrived in Spanish. But the turning point for many families, he said, came when they learned popular Galtier science teacher Peter Ratzloff would be making the move to Hamline.
Ratzloff, who lives between the two schools, said he found it "real, real reassuring" to make the cut and he looked forward to working at a school with a higher staffing level.
"We've been running kind of skeleton crew over here," he said.
Colleagues like fourth-grade teacher Tom Gardner were still waiting through much of last week to hear about their chances of moving over as well.
"It's a passionate community," Gardner said. "I hope to be part of it."
On Friday afternoon, he learned he will be teaching at Hamline.