Seven years ago, Washburn High School building was settling into old age with ample space for its 800-some students.
Then came its renaissance. Since 2009, Washburn’s student population has doubled to more than 1,600 this year, thanks to leadership changes and the south Minneapolis school’s growing reputation.
Students now pack booths and tables in the tiny lunchroom of the 90-year-old building. Some take science classes in makeshift labs. Athletic teams jockey for scant gym space in the bitterly cold winter months.
“We’re just having some growing pains,” Principal Rhonda Dean said as she walked through the halls on a recent morning.
Washburn’s space needs have echoed in public comment sections at board meetings throughout the fall, but the school isn’t the only one grappling with too much demand. Throughout the district, 13 schools are enrolling more students than the buildings’ maximum capacities, and most are Washburn’s neighbors in the southwest Minneapolis area. They include Emerson and Windom Spanish Dual Immersion schools, each filling about 100 more seats than the rated capacities.
Meanwhile, schools in north and northeast Minneapolis are struggling to fill empty seats. Four of them — including North High School — are less than half-full.
This kind of overcrowding in south Minneapolis schools isn’t new, district officials say, noting that district enrollment has been declining. But it shines a light on a problem the district can’t shake: schools with wildly unequal enrollments.
“It is always a balance,” said school board chairwoman Jenny Arneson.
One of the first tests facing new Superintendent Ed Graff is his handling of school priorities. He said at a November board meeting that he wants to ensure “all of our schools are offering environments that are conducive to student success and student learning.”
Washburn parents said they’re grateful that he’s listened to their concerns, and they are impressed with his responsiveness.
Washburn and Windom
Washburn and Windom schools are among sites swamped by surging enrollments.
After a boundary change in 2009, students started to flood into Washburn, attracted by leadership changes there, said Tom Madden, former school board chairman. Washburn had the money to add classrooms, but the expansion was deferred in fall 2015 because the district had to trim $60 million from its capital plan, said finance chief Ibrahima Diop.
One of Washburn’s most pressing needs is science classrooms. Some science classes are held in rooms that weren’t meant to house labs, Dean said. Graff told board members in November that Washburn’s immediate needs are a priority, and while there’s not enough money to fill all of them, he wants to “address additional learning spaces.”
Windom also has seen enrollment shoot up. Principal Jim Clark said that a few years ago, the school had about 450 students. This year, enrollment has grown to 570. It’s operating at 121 percent of ideal capacity, ranking it as the second-most crowded district school.
Some rooms are just big enough for a rug for circle time and a few desks around the perimeter. Lunchtime is so crowded that a full classroom of students eats in an overflow room that the school uses courtesy of the Minneapolis Park Board. But the district can’t use the room next year.
“We need just a few more spaces in our building,” Clark said.
Empty seats on North Side
Vacancies in north Minneapolis schools stem from a slew of reasons, district officials said, including safety concerns and competition from the many charter schools in the area. “Families are at a point in 2016 to say, ‘I don’t have to raise my kids in this type of an environment,’ and are making other choices as well,” said Michael Thomas, the district’s chief of schools.
The district is 500 to 600 students short of projections, Thomas said. School capacities are tailored to each building and the room number, size and programs in a building. Although some may be crowded, they never go beyond “fire-life safety capacity,” the district said.
Minneapolis schools is putting together recommendations for its annual plan. A committee and communications process will take place as the five-year plan for 2019-2023 develops.
The planning can’t happen fast enough for schools like Washburn High, which expects continued growth. Jeanne Massey, a Washburn parent and co-chair of its site council, attended a recent open house that was teeming with students.
“This enrollment trend is not going to turn around anytime fast,” Massey said.