The case for more classrooms

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October 25, 2010
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch
// New community group advocating for Northeast schools //

Northeast schools are filling up. Kindergarten classes are near capacity — one school even added a class — and Edison High School blew away this year’s projections with a big freshman class of 300 students.

That wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago, the school district closed three elementary schools — Webster, Putnam and Holland — and considered closing Waite Park as well. The closures sparked the creation of Public Education Northeast (PEN), a community group working to strengthen and promote Northeast schools.

Northeast doesn’t always fare well in the abundant school choices open to residents there. Half of the fifth graders from Waite Park, for example, attend middle school and high school in the suburb of St. Anthony, estimated Jenn Bennington, the head of PEN. And a couple of years ago, less than half of the kids who attended Edison actually lived in Northeast, said Minneapolis school board member Jill Davis.

“We lose a lot of kids to suburbs and charter schools,” Bennington said. “The St. Anthony-New Brighton school district recruits for sports, and people oftentimes open enroll. It’s draining a lot of really involved families from the public schools here.”


Myth-busting

When Bennington moved to Northeast, she was pregnant and perpetually heard warnings to watch out for the public schools, particularly Northeast Middle School. Ultimately, she wasn’t convinced and enrolled her child at Waite Park Elementary.

“There was nothing to back them up,” Bennington said.

In order to help with the myth-busting, Public Education Northeast has organized a schools showcase for the past five years. It’s a festive affair with 50–75 families attending each year. They bring in principals and people from the high school football team, robotics team, cheerleading squad, drumline, theater and debate team. This year’s event is Saturday, Nov. 13 from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. at Edison’s gym. After the showcase, the Morris Park Players will perform “Annie” in the auditorium.

Jenny Arneson, a former leader of PEN who is currently running for a school board seat, said the showcase works. At least 70 percent of the families who visit the showcase end up enrolling at a Northeast school, she said.

“We’re getting out real, authentic information,” said Davis, who was one of the founders of PEN. “Northeast Middle School had a horrible reputation, but the school has really changed. It has an IB [International Baccalaureate] program, a rigorous curriculum and after-school [programs]. It’s not an out-of-control kind of school.”

Edison Principal Carla Steinbach said she is constantly fighting the perception that Edison is unsafe. The school doesn’t hire off-duty officers anymore, she said, and students simply do not bring weapons to school.

“People think that’s what happens,” she said. “That’s the perception, but that’s not the truth.”

In reality, student test scores are improving, Steinbach said, and students have a longer school day and more electives than other Minneapolis high schools. The school is also increasingly connected to the community. It is home to a community theater, and it provides studio space to artists so students can watch them work.

“We’re not selling one specific, special program,” she said. “We provide for the whole child.”


How the schools stack up


Northeast schools are still working to improve, however.

Report cards indicate that Northeast schools aren’t making adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law, although Waite Park is meeting standards in math. Meanwhile, nearby suburban schools like St. Anthony Middle School and St. Anthony Village High School are making adequate yearly progress, and Wilshire Park Elementary is only deficient in its special education students’ math scores.

Myron Orfield, executive director of the Institute on Race and Poverty, said hundreds of studies have shown that kids perform better in school when most of the students are from middle-class families. When schools become poorer and poorer, he said, there isn’t enough demand to sustain rigorous academic programs.

Northeast schools have anywhere from 42 to 91 percent of the kids receiving free or reduced-price lunches. That’s in stark contrast to St. Anthony schools, which have 18 to 23 percent of students receiving discounted lunches.

“You have got to recruit and work toward balance,” Orfield said.

The Minneapolis School District hasn’t researched how well students from a single geographic area perform at the various schools they attend. But the district has researched the performance of low-income students who enroll outside Minneapolis through the “Choice is Yours” program. The district studied whether the Minneapolis students fared better in the city or the suburbs. Over the course of three years, the results were mixed.

“We didn’t find any difference,” concluded David Heistad, executive director of research, evaluation and assessment for Minneapolis Public Schools. In the 2006–07 school year, students who stayed in Minneapolis outperformed students who left the district in reading, and they matched suburban students in math.

Davis said the growth in enrollment in Northeast is a very good sign.

“I think people in Northeast are much more positive about the schools than they were five years ago,” she said.