It may not be the walk-able, neighborhood location they hoped for, but downtown families may soon have a school to call their own.
Minneapolis Public Schools is proposing to reopen its empty Webster building in the St. Anthony East neighborhood to serve as a community school for young families with children living downtown, a population that appears to be growing. The district also plans to unite downtown neighborhoods into one newly drawn attendance area for Webster.
The proposal is just one facet of a larger district plan to manage a projected 10-percent increase in enrollment over the next five years. Headed for a School Board vote in December, the still-developing enrollment plan involves reopening schools in several district buildings currently used for other purposes, building additions on some over-crowded schools and expanding academic offerings across the district.
If approved by the School Board, the new Webster would open as a pre-K–2 school in fall 2015, adding one grade per year until it is a pre-K–5 school. From Webster, students would follow a pathway to Northeast Middle School and then Edison High School.
If not exactly what the Downtown Minneapolis Elementary School Initiative was advocating, the Webster proposal at least fulfills some of the goals of the joint committee formed last year by downtown neighborhood associations. Where it most obviously falls short is in location — across the river from downtown.
Eric Laska, who co-chairs the school initiative, said many downtown families want a community school they can walk to. Laska, a married father of two children under two years old, said that is, after all, why many choose to live downtown: because their employers, the parks where they take their kids to play and options for shopping and entertainment are all within close proximity.
“Ideal? No,” Laska said of the Webster proposal. “Walk-able? Bike-able? Maybe.”
The former Webster Open Elementary School closed at the end of the 2005–2006 school year, part of a wave of school closings to hit the district that decade. After peaking at close to 49,000 students in 2000, district enrollment dropped by about 15,000 students over the next 10 years. The trend finally began to reverse in 2011 and has gained momentum since then.
During that same decade, downtown Minneapolis neighborhoods added roughly 10,000 residents, according to the city and U.S. Census figures. The Downtown Council puts the current number of downtown residents at about 34,000, a number it aims to double to 70,000 by 2025.
The district estimates there are 1,000 school-age children in the new 1G attendance area drawn around Webster, which also includes some Northeast neighborhoods outside of downtown proper. That figure doesn’t include about 500 students living in downtown shelters.
Still, David Dudycha, a member of the district’s planning team, acknowledged the actual number of downtown-area children is “pretty nebulous right now.” Downtown families skew younger, and any children up to three years of age weren’t around for the most recent census in 2010, Dudycha said.
Laska said recent survey by the Downtown Minneapolis Elementary School Initiative reached about 250 downtown households. It counted about 153 children aged 17 or younger, and 100 (65 percent) were 3 years old or younger.
The survey also asked parents if they planned to continue living downtown when their children were in school. About half responded “yes.”
Anecdotally, at least, that hasn’t been the trend. Those advocating for a downtown school say families tend to move away once their children reach school age.
Dudycha said district buses only pick up about 30 students from downtown addresses (not including shelters), indicating those who stay may be opting for suburban or private schools.
LeAnn Dow, another member of the district’s enrollment planning team, acknowledged that many downtown parents “just didn’t feel like they had a viable option” in Minneapolis Public Schools.
Currently, downtown is divided mainly between two attendance areas. The community school for most of downtown is Kenwood, two to three miles distant from many downtown addresses; for the North Loop, it’s Bethune, one of the lowest-performing schools in the district.
For Nora Webb, a new parent who lives in the North Loop neighborhood with her husband Brent, Webster is a “much better” option than those schools. Webb added, though, that she agreed with Laska: downtown families need a school downtown, not in Northeast.
“We find immense value in the connections we make in our immediate community and foster those connections as we walk (and) bike to these places,” she wrote in an email.
Still, Laska said putting students from the North Loop in the same attendance area as the rest of downtown would be a good first step toward recognizing the community that already exists in those neighborhoods.
“There’s a lot of common threads with parents who live downtown,” he said.