Educator argues St. Paul school closing plan is flawed

By Joe Nathan

The St. Paul Schools “Envision” Plan to close small schools is seriously flawed and should be rejected.

While I share the district’s desire to provide an equitable, well-rounded education for all students, research shows there are wiser approaches.

Administrators have ignored research showing, for example, that closing small schools could add costs.

As St. Paul students, families and educators face great challenges, the proposed Envision plan could well 1) produce ever more trauma for the 3,000+ affected students and 2) increase the exodus from St. Paul Public Schools, w hich already has lost more than 2,300 K-12 students between the 2017-18 and 2020-21 school years.

St. Paul district enrollment dropped by thousands of students over the past 10 to 15 years. But district charter school attendance INCREASED by even more. The district COULD attract and retain more students. (See table on the second column above)

St. Paul Public Schools took more than 15 months to create a strategic plan. In four years, since the superintendent was hired, the district has not yet fully implemented a culturally inclusive curriculum despite numerous requests by families.

This failure, I believe, helped produce the exodus of thousands of families.

Yet the district wants the school board to close schools affecting more than 3,000 students—less than two months after notifying the public. Is this the way to build confidence in the district?

Here are seven things I think the school board should do:

Insist the Envision Plan contain specific, measurable goals. The national Government Finance Officers Association (of which the school district’s budget director is a member), urges, “Clear goals for student achievement should guide how resources are allocated. Tracking progress or making tough budget decisions to prioritize programs and strategies is not possible without specific goals.”

—No measurable goals have been proposed for the Envison plan. As those responsible for the school district’s $800+ million budget, school board members should adopt measurable goals. A “well-rounded education” is imprecise.

Apply research about safety, costs and achievement in small versus large elementary schools. A federally funded review of 103 studies concluded: “For both elementary and secondary students of all ability levels and in all kinds of settings, research has repeatedly found small schools to be superior to large schools on most measures and equal to them on the rest.” For example:

—a. Smaller schools are safer. Safety is one of the reasons cited in SPPS sponsored research for students leaving the district.

—b. Small schools are not necessarily more expensive than larger schools. For example, closing small neighborhood schools will add additional transportation costs.

—c. Achievement is higher, behavior better in smaller schools.

Provide a more personalized, individualized education for all students. For example, Open World Learning, a district school, holds yearly individual goal setting conferences in August. So do several local charter schools. Recent research shows that many Minnesota families want this.

Seek social service agencies to share space in schools. In many communities, shared facilities, i.e. “community schools,” provide better service to students and families. Agencies also pay modest rent, helping pay building costs.

Hire outstanding St. Paul Public Schools and metro area educators to offer summer 2022 training that increases the number of school district courses helping K-12 students learn about all local cultures. Families repeatedly cite lack of inclusiveness in St. Paul Schools curriculum as one reason for leaving the district.

Provide opportunities for school district educators to duplicate or imitate other very successful schools, local schools with waiting lists and/or create new, potentially more attractive options opening in fall 2023. Boston, Los Angeles and other districts attracted more students by doing this. Educator- and family-­suggested options such as St. Paul Public Schools’ Montessori elementary schools and Open World have been popular. In 2011, the SPPS Board approved this idea but administration didn’t follow through.

Make research-based investments in early childhood programs. All early childhood programs are not equally effective. For example, the University of Minnesota’s Dr. Arthur Reynolds, wrote: “The impacts of early childhood programs vary substantially in magnitude, consistency and duration.” The school board should meet with Reynolds before expanding early childhood programs.

The St. Paul School Board should use research to move ahead, rejecting most of the Envision plan. 

Joe Nathan, a resident of St. Anthony, is a former St. Paul School Board member and past director of the Center for School Change.

                                      SPPS K-12                   St. Paul Charter
School Year              Enrollment                 Enrollment                     Total

2005-06                      40,647                       5,085                        45,732

2011-12                      37,063                       9,014                        46,077

2017-18                      36,087                      14.022                        50,109

2020-21                      33,735                      16,429                        50,164

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