The only school Minneapolis can close

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April 5, 2004 // UPDATED 1:08 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Unlike other city schools the district wanted to close this year, Downtown Open is the only one that will shut down.

Downtown Open -- an elementary school in the heart of the city that has forged strong ties to the business community -- will close at the end of the school year after a 13-year run.

The school, tucked inside the Baker Building, 706 2nd Ave. S., is the one Minneapolis public school set to close this year. The school district postponed a controversial reorganization plan floated earlier this year that would close several other city schools.

Talk of closing and merging schools comes as the district faces a projected $23 million budget deficit, declining student enrollment and an estimated surplus of 800 classrooms.

Vocal parents united to protest plans to close schools in South Minneapolis, but Downtown Open supporters have remained quiet and are taking the news in stride.

The school's Principal, Susan Craig, said staff members have been working all year to make the transition for students as smooth as possible. All 100 of the school's students are enrolled in other Minneapolis public schools for next year.

Some have already transferred to other schools, including the Interdistrict Downtown School, a K-12 which has its own prominent Downtown building at 10 S. 10th St.

Craig, who also supervises Cooper Elementary in South Minneapolis, maintains a pragmatic position on Downtown Open's fate. Craig acknowledged that it doesn't make sense for the cash-strapped school district to continue leasing space in Downtown's high-rent business district when it has space in other schools on which it doesn't owe rent.

Minneapolis School Board member Joseph Erickson helped shape the school's mission as an Augsburg College education professor but, as an elected official, cast an agonizing vote to shut down the school his own son attended.

Said Erickson, "It's a shame we can't sustain the kind of innovation and quality that Downtown Open provided during its run. But, it had a good run, and its legacy is the hundreds of well-prepared young people it served."

Erickson said the elementary school has been among the district's most diverse schools, both in terms of race and socioeconomic background.

The Downtown workplace, he noted, tends to be more diverse than the city's neighborhoods. Blue-collar workers, corporate executives and politicians, including former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, have raised Downtown Open students.

While many schools are "geographically isolated" in neighborhoods, Downtown Open has had the advantage of placing students in the middle of the city, Erickson said, who will speak at a school closing ceremony May 26.

Craig said there have been pros and cons to the school's location. Parking has been

a challenge -- a common theme for all Downtown workers.

But the advantages have outweighed the logistical challenges over the years, she said.

As the name suggests, the school is based on an "open school" concept. Erickson said the focus is on "lots of hands-on, learning- directed activities."

Teachers at Downtown Open work on integrating lessons with activities outside of the classroom. For instance, students have made frequent trips to the Farmers' Market, the Central Library, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and other Downtown amenities.

"A traditional school is what you and I have experienced growing up. We either walk to school or we take a bus to school and then go home again," Craig said. "What makes this really unique is that children are at the heart of the urban environment. They are in the city where it all happens. You have the business community -- the Wall Street type folks doing their business thing. You have American Express doing all of their financial work. You have social services in the Downtown area -- people helping people."

Craig said she believes the urban exposure will leave a lasting impression on the students.

"These children are going to be familiar with Downtown as they become adults. They will be comfortable in an urban setting, interacting with all types of people," she said. "It's been a real gift -- a wonderful gift to families, a gift to the children, a future gift to the workforce really."

The school, marketed to Downtown working parents, has been heavily financed with corporate dollars over the years.

Besides financial contributions, Craig is quick to point out other partnerships Downtown Open has made with the corporate community.

For instance, American Express workers participate in a pen pal program with students, exchanging letters every few weeks describing school and work activities.

There are plans to continue the pen pal program at the Interdistrict Downtown School.

Accenture, 333 7th St. S., has donated book bags each year, outfitting every student with backpacks and supplies. Other supporters include the Downtown Kiwanis Club, the United States Department of Agriculture, which maintains a Downtown office, and the law firm Faegre & Benson, which has provided the school with mentors and volunteers.

The Downtown Barnes & Noble, 810 Nicollet Mall, and Gethsemane Episcopal Church, 905 4th Ave. S., are also listed as community supporters.

Said Craig, "This school might not be positioned in a space in the Downtown area, in the urban center, but the lessons we've learned with this school will be carried forward and will be lessons for everybody.

We learned a lot about partnering with the community, parents, corporations and businesses."