Jul. 21—With no end in sight to falling enrollment, St. Paul Public Schools plans to begin closing some elementary schools and expanding preschool as early as fall 2022.
Given the school board's blessing in February 2020, several work groups have been studying how to best use the district's 68 schools, many of which were vastly underutilized even before the coronavirus pandemic.
"There is a need to have fewer elementary schools in this district," Chief Operations Officer Jackie Turner told the board Tuesday. "We are going to have to close some schools."
Officials provided no details on what's to come, but renovating buildings to allow for more preschoolers has emerged as a priority.
Making room for more 3- and 4-year-olds would bring no immediate payoff for the district. Most preschoolers generate no state funding and are covered instead by a local tax referendum; however, kids who enroll in preschool are more likely to stick around for kindergarten and beyond.
The St. Paul district could use an enrollment boost. Between fall 2014 and 2019 — before the pandemic — K-12 enrollment dropped by 2,362 students, or 6 percent. It fell by another 987 last year and the district expects further declines this fall.
That trend figures to continue because of depressed birth rates. According to projections shown to the board Tuesday, the number of St. Paul kids enrolled in public or private kindergarten will fall by 775 — or 17 percent — between fall 2018 and 2025.
At the same time, the district continues to face increasing competition from charter schools.
A big part of the planning process, called "Envision SPPS," is making the schools that remain open more attractive to families by offering a "well-rounded education," which would include more consistent elementary opportunities in science and the arts.
Turner said it's a matter of equity.
"The time has come to address the disparities in our schools that are taking place," she said.
Becoming more efficient by closing under-enrolled schools should free up money to give students more options at whatever school they attend. But there's always a risk that such closures would turn families away from district schools.
Plans could also include expanding popular programs, such as Montessori or language immersion. Some programs could change buildings and schools could be merged.
CHANGES IN FALL 2022
The district plans to take specific recommendations to families, students and staff sometime next school year before asking the school board to vote on any changes for the following fall.
Although no buildings were named Tuesday, the district in February identified a dozen schools that operate at less than 70 percent capacity: Creative Arts Secondary, Parkway Middle, and Adams Spanish Immersion, Cherokee Heights, Dayton's Bluff, Galtier, Hamline, Highwood Hills, L'Etoile du Nord French Immersion, Maxfield, Obama and Riverview elementary schools.
Obama may be one to watch. District planners in recent years have discussed its potential as a preschool hub, and its planned 2020 renovation was postponed to 2025. It's also among the more racially identifiable schools in the district, with Black students accounting for two-thirds of enrollment.
Cruz-Guzman, an ongoing school desegregation lawsuit against the state, could play a role in the way St. Paul reorganizes its schools. A negotiated settlement in the case, which needs approval by the Legislature, would create a new busing program between city and suburban schools, establish new magnet schools in the Twin Cities and push segregated schools to integrate.
"We need to be prepared for continued integration, continued school choice and continued families choosing other public education options," Turner said.
The district hasn't considered closing a school since 2016, when the school board on a 4-3 vote rejected then-Superintendent Valeria Silva's plan to close Galtier Elementary.
Board member Yusef Carrillo on Tuesday encouraged the district to be transparent with its decision making, especially around why it's closing schools.
"These are traumatic events," he said.