Declining Enrollment Dictates Closings

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North Side school enrollment dropped 43 percent from 2001 to 2006.

School closings have become the norm in many Minnesota school districts as enrollment has declined due to fewer births after 1990. The decreases have been particularly large in Minneapolis. According to a demographic report prepared for the school district, the number of children in Minneapolis public schools declined 23 percent between 2001 and 2006.

Decreases on the North Side have been even greater. Enrollment in kindergarten through fifth grade declined 43 percent on the North Side in that five-year period, compared with 24 percent for the northeast quadrant, 23 percent in the southeast and only 6 percent in the southwest. In the fall of 2006, the district’s enrollment declined by about 1,600 students, and 90 percent of that loss occurred in north Minneapolis. Enrollment in the 2006-2007 school year was about 36,000.

When enrollment declines, the school budget does the same. Much of the public money earmarked for schools is distributed on a per-pupil basis. Fewer students mean less income.

Several factors in addition to birth rates are influencing Minneapolis enrollment, and they have affected the North Side more than other areas of the city.

A greater proportion of Black students than whites have left North Side schools. Some parents choose to leave the city to find cheaper housing when affordable units are demolished for new, more expensive developments. Others have moved, often to nearby northern suburbs, because of increasing crime in their neighborhoods. Many of the families who stay are choosing charter schools in Minneapolis for safety, academic or other reasons. These schools are plentiful on the North Side.

In addition, a court-ordered program provides free busing to suburban schools for poor children, those who are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. During the school year that ended last spring, about 1,800 students were bused out of Minneapolis, according to Rich Goodwin of the student accounting office.

While all but one of this fall’s closings are on the North Side, Perry said that schools elsewhere in the city will close if enrollment continues to decline. The demographic report says that the number of Minneapolis public school students is likely to decrease an additional 19 percent by 2011.

Tuttle Elementary in southeast Minneapolis is the only school outside the North Side closed this year. Eight other Minneapolis public schools were closed in 2005 and last year. Two, Franklin Middle School and Hamilton Elementary School, were on the North Side. The others were Cooper, Erickson, Holland, Howe, Putnam and Webster Elementary Schools.

A tale of two school districts

Minneapolis public school enrollment has declined at more than twice the rate of St. Paul’s since 1998. The recent peak in the St. Paul public schools was in the fall of 1998. According to school district data, the number of children in the city’s schools dropped 10.6 percent, to about 40,500, between 1998 and the 2006-2007 school year.

During the same period, Minneapolis enrollment declined by 25.6 percent, to about 36,000. Minneapolis, once the largest school district in Minnesota, is now third. Both the St. Paul and Anoka-Hennepin districts have more students. Preliminary figures compiled by the Minnesota Department of Education indicate that Anoka-Hennepin had a few hundred more students than St. Paul during the 2006-2007 school year.

Only one school in St. Paul – Parkway Elementary – has closed in the last 20 years. While it was closed as an elementary school and those students went elsewhere, the building remained open for a French immersion program.

As the St. Paul schools have lost enrollment, the school district has moved its programs out of leased space, said Bill Larson, the district’s acting chief operations officer. This will continue, he said, and school closings are possible in the future.

The two school districts are similar in some ways. They have nearly the same percentage of both minority and poor students.

So why is one losing enrollment so much faster than the other?

A number of factors could be involved. One appears to be the greater availability of charter schools in Minneapolis, especially on the North Side. Black parents in Minneapolis often transfer their children to charters.

Minneapolis has more violent crime than St. Paul. This has motivated families, especially those on the city’s North Side, to move to nearby suburbs. Also, the Minneapolis School District has a court-ordered busing program for poor students; about 1,800 children were transported out of the city during the 2006-2007 school year.