Loving it and leaving it: Phalen Lake hopes to reverse the trend


Though families love Phalen Lake Elementary School, they have been leaving it. Why? “Every family that has left has been related to a change in housing,” Principal Catherine Rich says. “Parents call all the time, saying, ‘We had to move. Do you have transportation? Can we get transportation? We want to come back.’ Some families have left the attendance area – or even St. Paul – and drive their children back here. But that’s a huge hardship, with work shift changes and other factors.”

In September, the school and the district hope to turn the transportation problem around, keeping families and bringing some back as the neighborhood school becomes a magnet school. The change will mean that any family east of 35E can choose Phalen Lake and be assured of bus transportation. The school will continue to enroll students in grades K-6, and to offer a four-year-old pre-kindergarten program as well as all-day kindergarten.

The deadline for magnet school application is Friday, March 7. (Applications will continue to be taken after that date.) Families wanting to apply to Phalen Lake (or other St. Paul magnet schools) should go to www.spps.org or call 651-632-3760.

Transportation is only part of the change. In September, the school will officially become the Phalen Lake Elementary Hmong Studies and Core Knowledge Magnet. According to district special projects officer Bee Lee, the new name reflects a commitment to building on what Phalen Lake is already doing and responding to community input.

Sue Vogt, a teacher at Phalen Lake for 30 years (until her retirement in 2006), called Phalen Lake “a wonderful place to work,” with forward-thinking administrators and a strong staff. Vogt said that at Phalen she “always felt like we were on the leading edge of educational reform, always taking action to improve what we were doing with our children and to meet their needs.”

Vogt recalls that new immigrants began to arrive in the late 1970s, first from Southeast Asia, and also from Mexico. She says the administration and staff began “looking for ways to enrich our program in response to the concerns of the parents within the community” as new immigrants arrived. That led to the adoption of an innovative curriculum that combines the Core Knowledge curriculum with Hmong and Spanish language and cultural enrichment classes. Vogt says the cultural enrichment classes balanced what some have criticized as a Euro-centric focus in the Core Knowledge curriculum.

Principal Catherine Rich explains that all students have language and cultural enrichment classes in rotation with other “specialist” classes in art, music, science and physical education. She believes the cultural enrichment focus helps students to build on what they already have, and to recognize that “within the diversity of cultures, there is a great commonality.”

The school’s enrollment is diverse, with about 14 percent African American students, 64 percent Asian students, eight percent European students, 13 percent Latino students and one percent Native American students. About 71 percent of students are classified as English language learners, and 92 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“In order to understand another’s culture,” Rich says, “you really have to focus and understand your own.” She emphasizes that Phalen Lake will not become a “Hmong school,” but will remain a diverse school, open to all students, and offering both Spanish and Hmong language and cultural enrichment classes.

Phalen Lake will also continue its strong commitment to families in the community. “We are a satellite site for adult literacy,” Rich explains. “That started a few years ago, with arrival of families from Wat camp.” The Hubbs Adult Literacy center offers daytime and evening classes for basic work English. “We have many parents here for their English classes while their children are going to school,” Rich says. “That comes back to why families don’t want to leave—they are a part of their children’s learning.”

In addition to the literacy classes, parents are welcomed in a family room where the coffee is always on. Three parent-school liaisons, who are bilingual in Hmong, Spanish and American Sign Language, help to bridge cultural differences and orient parents to the way that the school works. Family nights often showcase Core Knowledge learning, and also offer bingo and other chances to win books.

“We are very excited about the changes and about the opportunity to enrich our curriculum in Hmong studies and more broadly represent a very rich and diverse culture,” says Rich. She says that some families who have moved away have already called to get in their applications for September, and are looking forward to returning to Phalen Lake.