Parents push for downtown school

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December 17, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

NORTH LOOP — Sue Einess moved into her North Loop condominium nearly a decade ago, and she’s among those residents who see the strollers on the sidewalks and the toddlers in the cafes and is certain more families are choosing to live downtown.

But are they staying? For four couples in Einess’ building, having children meant moving away in search of better school options.

“As soon as their kids got to school age, they all started leaving,” she said.

With the aim of reversing that trend, the North Loop and Downtown Minneapolis neighborhood associations formed a joint committee this fall to pursue the creation of a new educational facility downtown.

The same goal appeared in the Downtown 2025 Plan released one year ago by the Downtown Council. The business association aims to double downtown’s population to 70,000 residents by 2025, and makes a new school “a top priority.” 

Downtown Council President Mark Stenglein said Millenials — those born since about 1980, the oldest of whom are starting to have children of their own — are “coming downtown in droves.”

“They’ll move out unless we give them some amenities,” Stenglein added, listing new parks and a school among those amenities.

New grocery stores and a riverfront playground already are making life easier for young families living downtown, but when Einess takes her 6-year-old daughter to the playground, Isabella is one of the oldest kids there. Einess said she and her husband, Jon, considered moving, too, when they realized Isabella didn’t have any friends her age left in the neighborhood.

“We like where we live, and we’re doing the best we can to make it work,” she said.

Limited options

When the Downtown 2025 Plan was released, there were an estimated 34,000 residents Downtown. Within five downtown neighborhoods — the North Loop, Downtown West and East, Elliot Park and Loring Park — U.S. Census Bureau estimates indicate there are just more than 700 children under the age of 5, and about another 320 between the ages of 5 and 9, but many likely stay at downtown homeless shelters, not condos.

For some downtown residents, like North Loop Neighborhood Association Vice President Karen Lee Rosar, the last few years have resembled a baby boom. That may be the case outside downtown, too, and the evidence is not just anecdotal; Minneapolis Public Schools officials say a local “baby boomlet” in the middle of the last decade has recently led to higher kindergarten enrollment.

“I see strollers all over the place, women pregnant, lots of children,” Rosar said. “That’s a good thing, but I’m still afraid … when it comes time for those parents to start making educational choices we will be lacking in the downtown area.”

Today, downtown elementary school options include the West Metro Education Program’s FAIR School, which has campuses here and in Crystal. But the school, part of an integration district that includes Minneapolis Public Schools and 10 suburban districts, reserves only a limited number of seats for Minneapolis students. And a child who lived downtown would have to bus to Crystal for grades 4–8.

The Minneapolis district’s Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center offers pre-kindergarten through grade 5 classes in a building near Loring Park, but its language-immersion program might not appeal to some families.

The district offers busing to community and magnet schools located outside of downtown, but it appears few are taking them up on the offer. When students housed at downtown shelters are excluded from the count, the district buses only about 40 students from downtown addresses to its schools, said David Dudycha, a district consultant.

Some parents do their research and get discouraged. North Loop families who plug their address into the Minneapolis Public Schools website find Bethune Community School tops their list of options and, reading further, discover it is among lowest-performing public schools in the city.

Einess said she would have chosen Kenwood School for her daughter had Isabella not been placed on a waiting list for the school. Isabella eventually won a seat at Kenwood, but not before Einess decided to enroll her at Minnehaha Academy in South Minneapolis, instead.

Downtown lifestyle

City Council Member Diane Hofstede, whose Ward 3 will include the North Loop when ward boundaries shift next year, said she supports a new school that with easy access to all the arts and cultural amenities Downtown has to offer.

“What I think has been demonstrated is neighborhood schools are really successful, and I think the benefits of a downtown school are the rich resources schools can participate in,” Hofstede said.

Melissa and Eric Laska, who live within a stone’s throw of the Stone Arch Bridge, were just starting to think about the school options for their son, Peter, who was 14 months old in November. In January, the two plan to attend Minneapolis School Fair Showcase at the Convention Center for the first time.

The Laskas said they appreciate their low-maintenance downtown lifestyle. In a condominium, they never have to shovel snow or mow the lawn. And when they moved in together in 2008, they decided to get rid of a car and share just one vehicle.

“Only after I moved downtown did I realize it’s so much more liberating not having to get into your car and drive places,” said Eric Laska, who often bikes to work at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage in the Phillips neighborhood.

Melissa Laska, an obesity prevention researcher at the University of Minnesota, also commutes on foot. Walking is one aspect of downtown living — along with their easy access to the Guthrie Theater, the Mill City Farmers Market and other amenities — the two are reluctant to give up.

Melissa Laska said it’s not quite New York City, and never will be, but she thinks downtown Minneapolis has a lot to offer families. And her husband argued families living downtown — who shop and work and could someday send their children to school downtown — have a lot offer the local economy.

“I’m sure it would help companies like Target and Ameriprise attract people from the East Coast in New York and Boston, where families are very accustomed to living in an urban environment,” Eric Laska said.