The Saint Paul School Board voted 5-2 on December 1 to approve a scaled-back version of the district’s Envision SPPS plan that closes or merges a half-dozen schools but keeps LEAP High School, Wellstone Elementary and Highwood Hills Elementary open.

Board members supported keeping Wellstone Elementary open because it met the district’s size requirements, stated superintendent Joe Gothard in a letter on the district’s website. They agreed to keep LEAP High open while it studied how to make it more sustainable, Gothard added, and they saved Highwood Hills in consideration of “the neighborhood’s geographic isolation.”

However, the rest of the Envision SPPS plan remains intact.

LEAP High School
The Saint Paul School Board voted to keep LEAP High School open at 631 N. Albert St. while it explores how to make the alternative school sustainable. LEAP serves new immigrants to Saint Paul who are pursuing a high school diploma while learning English as a second language.
At the end of the current school year, Cherokee Heights Montessori will merge with J.J. Hill Montessori at 998 Selby Ave. Riverview West Side School of Excellence will close and its students will move to Cherokee Heights, which will become a community school. Obama Elementary will close for remodeling in 2023-24 and reopen in 2024 or 2025 as the new site of J.J. Hill Montessori and a new Montessori middle school.
 

Galtier Elementary will merge with Hamline Elementary at Hamline. John A. Johnson Elementary will close, and its students will transfer to Bruce Vento Elementary. Jackson Elementary will close, its general-ed students will move to Maxfield Elementary and its Hmong dual-language program will move to Phalen Lake Elementary.

   
L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion lower school campus will close and its students will move onto the L’Etoile du Nord upper school campus. Finally, Parkway Montessori Middle School will be turned into a Hmong dual-language middle school.
 

With a loss of close to 3,000 students in recent years, the district has several schools operating at under 70 percent capacity or far below the district’s minimum goal of 85 percent capacity. The lower attendance means the schools cannot offer a full slate of subjects and enrichment activities.

The decision was a difficult one for the five board members who voted in favor.

“Closing schools is extremely hard,” said board member Chauntyll Allen. “It’s been a long haul. But we’ve heard from the community. We’ve heard from the administration. We’ve studied the data on our own, and we recognized that some pretty drastic changes really need to happen in our Saint Paul Public Schools.”

 

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Envision SPPS addresses the problem with declining enrollments across the district brought about by a continued drop in birth rates and students transferring to public charter schools and private schools. With a loss of close to 3,000 students in recent years, the district has several schools operating at under 70 percent capacity or far below the district’s minimum goal of 85 percent capacity. The lower attendance means the schools cannot offer a full slate of subjects and enrichment activities.

More than 8,000 seats are empty across the district, administrators reported. Kindergarten enrollment in the Saint Paul Public Schools dropped from 4,452 students in 2018-19 to 4,150 students in 2020-21. That number is projected to fall to 3,677 students in 2025-26.
 

Envision SPPS had many detractors

Envision SPPS had many detractors. The Saint Paul NAACP, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, educators, parents and many community members had asked the School Board to restart the process. Joe Nathan, a critic, applauded the board for deciding to keep the three schools open, but said the district missed an opportunity to create a better plan while managing “to frustrate and disrespect parents, students and educators throughout the city.”

The modified plan will impact 6 percent or less than 3,000 of the district’s students, according to Jackie Turner, chief operations officer for the Saint Paul Public Schools. The original plan was drawn up with the help of 11 work groups and board members who studied it at 14 meetings. Nineteen school-based information sessions were held on the proposed plan along with several public hearings and information sessions, Turner said.

According to Turner, students attending schools that are closing will have a seat saved for them at a school in their attendance area. If they decide to attend a different school, their application will receive “closed school priority,” she said.

Majority of board backed plan with reluctance

In addition to Allen, the modified plan was supported by board members Jeanelle Foster, Jessica Kopp, Jim Vue and Yusef Carrillo. Board members John Brodrick and Zuki Ellis voted against the plan.

Foster said there were no winners in this decision. “Action hurts, inaction hurts in this situation,” she said. “There’s a lot of work and action that needs to take place going from here.”

Envision SPPS “is the end of something for some of our communities,” Kopp said. Her hope is that “in this difficult and heavy moment we’re in, something beautiful can grow.”

Brodrick said he had heard from parents, educators and students who thought the process for drafting the Envision plan lacked clarity and transparency. “We can never expect to halt declining enrollment until we restore trust,” said Brodrick, who is leaving the board at the end of the year. “A modified proposal will only put a Band-Aid on this almost mortal wound of distrust.”

Ellis said she supported parts of the plan, but questioned whether students will transfer to the merged schools and whether the greater educational opportunities will materialize.

Carrillo said the closings will be “detrimental” to some families. However, the changes will likely result in students at all the district’s schools having the opportunity for a more well-rounded education, he added.

December 1 was the last School Board meeting for Carrillo, who had been appointed to fill an unexpired term. “I’m not proud of this vote,” he said. “This is not a great moment in my life that I’ll cherish.”

— Frank Jossi

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