Thursday, September 9, 2010

New School Year, New School - an article on the effects of last year's massive wave of school closures in the Twin Cities

By ALLIE SHAH, Star Tribune

Last update: September 6, 2010 - 9:03 PM

As the annual fall ritual takes place, thousands of students and teachers go back to school in a new place - the result of major closings in several districts. The aftershocks of Minnesota's largest wave of school closings in decades hit Tuesday as thousands of Twin Cities students and teachers begin the new school year in a different school. At least 20 schools were closed last school year, sparking a mass movement this fall as districts drew new attendance lines, added bus routes and rejiggered grade levels.

Ground zero for this week's reopening in new schools is in two big districts -- Anoka-Hennepin and St. Paul -- which both closed a record number of schools last spring.

"It's a big deal to move schools and change," said Cari Rock, newly installed principal of Eisenhower Elementary in Coon Rapids, a school that has been transformed with the arrival of hundreds of new students from closed programs. Eisenhower dismissed with 390 students last June and opens Tuesday morning with 237 more -- a 61 percent jump.

Students changing schools face a heightened sense of first-day jitters.

Some will ride a school bus for the first time instead of walking. Some will have to make new friends because their old chums aren't with them anymore. All will have to get used to the idea that their old school is no more.

"It's been hard for a lot of families," Rock said.

Last year saw the largest number of school closings since 1982, when scores of Minnesota schools were shuttered because of steep enrollment declines and tight budgets.

Nearly 30 years later, finances and dwindling enrollment are driving the latest closing trend. Also contributing to empty classrooms are demographic shifts and stiffened competition from charter schools, open enrollment and other school choices.

Hardest hit by the one-two punch of financial pressure and declining enrollment are the state's three largest school districts.

St. Paul closed a record eight schools, affecting more than 4,500 students who are either moving or will be joined by new students from closed schools.

In Minneapolis, three of the district's public schools closed last year, affecting 20 percent of the district's 32,000 students. Minneapolis children went back to school last week.

And the Anoka-Hennepin School District had the largest downsizing in its history, with eight schools shut down.

In fact, the last time district leaders permanently closed a school was in 1952, when small rural schools were closed as part of consolidating several smaller country districts into Anoka-Hennepin.

'Parents aren't happy'

As districts consolidate students into fewer schools, some parents worry that their children will find themselves in crowded classrooms.

St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva said closing buildings doesn't mean class sizes will rise, because class size is more dependent on dollars than on building space.

She and Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Denny Carlson say their districts are saving millions by reducing the number of schools, and that's money that helps avoid having to cut teachers.

"We have really tried to make the best of a very difficult situation," said Carlson. "There's so much emotion in a connection with a school."

In all, 3,100 elementary and middle school students in the district are changing schools or living in a new school attendance area because their old school closed.

"And parents aren't happy about that," Carlson said. "Students are more quick to grasp that transition than parents. We hope people will embrace these new relationships."

Children aren't the only ones on the move this week. About 500 teachers and other staff members have switched schools in the Anoka-Hennepin district as a result of the closings.

To help ease the transition for kids relocating, the schools receiving the new students held several welcoming events this past spring.

In addition, students at the soon-to-be-closed schools went on field trips to their new schools last year.

Eisenhower received a large influx of students from nearby Sorteberg Elementary and University Avenue Elementary.

Rock, the principal, says she can relate to what students and their families are going through. She came to Eisenhower from a closed school, too.

Parents attending an Eisenhower orientation night last week said they had mixed emotions as the school year begins.

"It was really hard at first, because you're used to a school and there's going to be changes," said Richard Boyce. The Coon Rapids resident has two daughters who will be switching from Sorteberg to Eisenhower this year. Natalie and Olivia are entering the first and second grades.

To help the girls adjust to their new surroundings, Boyce took them to the school playground a couple of times this summer and the whole family went to Eisenhower's school carnival last spring.

At the orientation, the Boyces joined throngs of other families peering into classrooms as they walked the circular main hallway, a defining feature of the school. He said the girls worried that they would get lost in a round school. His advice: Keep walking around the circle and eventually you'll end up in the same place.

"They're both kind of nervous, but excited," he said.

Not everything was unfamiliar. Natalie took comfort in learning that her new teacher has something in common with her teacher last year.

Asked who her teacher was at her old school, Natalie mumbled, "Mrs. Wallace."

The name of her new teacher?

"Mrs. Wallace," she said, smiling broadly.

Before coming to the orientation, brothers Michael and James Symanski chose their attire with the same care usually reserved for selecting a First Day of School outfit.

The red T-shirts with "Sorteberg Forever" scrawled across the front paid tribute to their old school and spoke volumes about their angst toward finishing grade school in a different building.

'We were very involved'

"I wish I could say they're gung-ho and totally excited to go," said Alisa Symanski, whose twin sons start fifth grade at Eisenhower this week.

The loss is also felt by the boys' parents.

"Sorteberg was one of the smaller schools," their mother said wistfully. "We knew all the faculty and we were very involved."

Still, like most parents, the Symanskis say they want to focus on the positive things about the new school -- a great music program, more extracurricular activities -- and are encouraging their boys to do the same.

"Change is not something we can avoid," Alisa Symanski said. "In that sense, this is kind of a blessing in disguise to prepare them for when they go to middle school."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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