Neighborhood schools struggle to stay afloat

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More than two years ago, Tuttle School was surrounded with hundreds of elementary and middle school students playing outside while waiting for classes to begin. Since the school was shut down by the district in 2007, its towering building, large playground and facilities have been desolately empty.

The Southeast Como school was one of five schools recommended to be closed in 2007 by the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) board due to a decrease in funding from the state. The district lost $28 million in state funding this year alone.

Last month the board voted to close another four schools and passed a downsizing plan to save $8 million annually.

Unlike Tuttle, Pratt Community School – a small elementary school of 160 students in Prospect Park -narrowly escaped being shut down in 2007 and again last month.

More students means less families

James De Sota , Southeast Como community organizer, said Tuttle School’s size – more than 100,000 square feet – and its facilities, which include a gym, media center, cafeteria and theater, should’ve been enough to keep it open. He also said it was frustrating because it was the longest operating school in Minneapolis.

In 2002, the Southeast Como Improvement Association invested $140,000 to build a new science lab and additional facilities in order to prevent the school from closing. After the lab was built, the school was merged with Pratt School to form a middle school, at the behest of the MPS board.

“We did everything right and it’s been a waste. These kinds of decisions make people wonder what’s going on,” De Sota said.

Current MPS board member Pam Costain was board chair when she voted to close Tuttle School in 2007. She said the district has been cut by more than $150 million in the last decade.

“It’s been year after year of pressure. So we had to reorganize the entire district to make it leaner,” she said.

The main reason for closing Tuttle was rapidly declining enrollment, which Costain said has been a citywide phenomenon.

“Tuttle was a big school in a neighborhood whose [number of] school-aged children is shrinking,” she said. “In order to give the resources for schools to have the best academic achievement, we couldn’t have half-filled schools. It’s just not viable.”

Southeast Como community members attribute the decline in enrollment to the rise in student renters in the neighborhood in the past decade.

“When you have a drop in the number of families living here, the [school] attendance is affected,” De Sota said. “This has affected the perception the school district has on us.”

According to a city census taken in 2000, 64 percent of the neighborhood’s housing stock was renter occupied and 36 percent was inhabited by homeowners. Those numbers were the opposite just 10 years before. The most recent data shows the neighborhood is now 85 percent renter occupied.

De Sota said there has been a direct correlation between the rapid decrease in homeownership and worsening property conditions, which “gives outsiders the perception that there are a lot of issues to deal with in this neighborhood.”

Some of these issues are crowded parking and over-occupied homes, which make the neighborhood unattractive for homeowners, he said. Noisy house parties in particular have been a problem for Southeast Como.

“Sometimes you’ll have 150 partiers on an entire block,” De Sota said.

Second Precinct Crime Prevention Specialist Nick Juarez said he has sent the most warning letters this year to Southeast Como student residents for being disruptive.

“Residents are concerned. They’ve been for a long time,” he said.

Lee Hibbard , vice president of SECIA’s board of directors, said there are “pockets” of families with children, like on 19th Avenue where she lives.

“But there isn’t a school for them so we don’t have a place to send our kids and that makes it hard to attract people here,” she said.

Hibbard is also the director of the Miniapple Montessori preschool in Dinkytown. She said she has noticed that more graduate students send their children there.

“We need more school options in the neighborhood,” she said, “more preschools, charter schools and daycare centers would be great.”

Tuttle vs. Pratt

Most former Tuttle students moved to St. Anthony Middle School, Marcy Open School and nearby charter schools.

Although Pratt School has had consistently high test scores, “most didn’t go there because they saw it lacked certain facilities,” De Sota said. But he said Pratt has programs especially used by Somali immigrants that would make it successful as an educational center.

“They have a lot going for them, but not as a school,” he said.

Pratt School’s small size has made it a target of the district since it closed in 1982 and reopened the next year. The school narrowly escaped being shut down in September after the community protested at public meetings.

“They had an effective political and marketing campaign to keep it open. They spoke to the right people,” De Sota said. “We didn’t do it as effectively because we had a month’s notice [the school would close],” he said.

Still, hundreds of parents and community members attended a public meeting to defend Tuttle School in 2007.

Immigrant families could save Tuttle

Tuttle School may reopen as a charter or mixed-use school if more families move into the neighborhood. There has already been an increase in the number of families in the past six months, which De Sota attributes to Southeast Como’s convenient location and affordability. Most new families are Somali immigrants moving into the Charlotte Commons apartment building on 13th Avenue Southeast.

Dick Poppele , president of the Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association , said Tuttle’s disadvantage was its lack in racial diversity.

“There’s no question about it that the influx of immigrants in Prospect Park played a big role in keeping Pratt open,” he said. “It’s natural to keep a school that already has diversity built in. The school board really wants to see ways of achieving that.”

Poppele said the largest and most recent immigrant groups in Prospect Park are Somali and Hmong.

“It’s a cycle we’ve seen and it’s likely it’ll continue,” he said.

“We heard strongly from Somali activists who wanted to preserve a K-5 option,” Costain said of Pratt School. “We were concerned we’d be limiting their options and we [didn’t want to] hurt them with our decision.”

Although most of Prospect Park is inhabited by middle class residents and University of Minnesota professors, the Glendale public housing development is home mostly to Somali refugees, who send their children to Pratt School.

Judi Yoshino is a North Minneapolis resident whose children have been enrolled in four different schools throughout the Twin Cities. She said she enrolled her children at Pratt School last year and liked it. Even when parents were told the school might close, Yoshino said she didn’t look for a new school.

“I don’t see as much diversity in other neighborhoods or schools. It’s great especially for people who come from a different country,” she said. “I love the community feeling. None of us wanted it to close.”

Annina Huovinen moved to the neighborhood from her home country of Finland last month because her husband is a visiting professor at the University. Huovinen said she sends her children to Pratt School because “foreign kids need a small community in the beginning, especially to learn English.”

Although there is relief that Pratt isn’t closed, Poppele said it’s still a possibility.

Costain conceded the district is looking into new models for the school to accommodate its size.

“The school board has serious issues about the way they want to structure the school system and small neighborhood schools like Pratt are not part of that plan,” he said.