A year ago, many in Southeast Minneapolis were reeling from the Minneapolis Public School Board’s decision to close Tuttle School in the Como neighborhood and combine it with its sister school, Pratt, in Prospect Park.
While Tuttle families mourned their loss, Pratt families breathed a sigh of relief, thankful their neighborhood school, which served approximately 85 K–5 students, would remain open and be bolstered by the addition of 100 or more students from Tuttle. The Pratt community mobilized to welcome new students and staff, and to prepare for a much larger student body.
A year later, assessments of the “new” Pratt school are mixed. While Pratt has retained many of the elements that persuaded the School Board to keep it open — strong community support, a unique intergenerational learning model, and a small size that fosters individual attention and support — the school also experienced significant growing pains, and it faces major challenges going into the 2008–2009 school year.
Enrollment shortfall shifting student base
Ellen Murphy, principal of both Tuttle and Pratt, said that while the Pratt and Tuttle teachers blended well and “really stepped up to the challenges presented by the merger,” errors at the district level got Pratt off to a bumpy start.
For example, while Pratt was supposed to inherit Tuttle’s busing boundaries, some Tuttle families were told by the district that they couldn’t get busing to Pratt. In addition, students living in the Glendale housing project in Prospect Park were told they would no longer receive busing to Pratt because they were within the school’s walking zone. Murphy said those families, many of whom are recent Somali immigrants, do not feel comfortable having their students walk to school, so some chose schools that would provide busing.
As a result, just 33 Tuttle students ended up coming to Pratt, placing the fall enrollment at 135, far short of the 240 the district had budgeted for. The consequences of the shortfall were significant. District officials eliminated one teaching position, blending two classes into a single split-grade classroom. In addition, because Pratt had so many student openings, Murphy said, “when new students came into the district throughout the school year, they were directed here [to Pratt].” Many students came and others left, so over the course of the year, the school served approximately 250 students, though its student body reached a year-end high of just 190.
That high level of student turnover made teaching difficult, as some classrooms were frequently unsettled by the arrival and departure of students. The problems were especially acute in the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms, where parents say behavior problems got in the way of students’ learning.
Darin Warling, whose daughter Hannah was in fifth grade, said behavior problems seemed to snowball after the winter holidays. “The district started dumping more and more kids into the school, and I think that’s what really triggered the problems,” he said.
Scott Johnson, parent of a first-grader, agreed that a greater number of needy students strained the school’s resources. “We had a much higher number of at-risk students in the school this year,” he said, with approximately 65 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. According to social worker Leo Bolger, approximately 20 percent of the students at Pratt were classified as homeless or high-mobility.
Murphy said behavior problems became overwhelming for staff at times, but she saw improvements in the spring, when the school implemented a Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) program, which she hopes will allow for a stronger focus on academics next year. Parents of children in the younger-age classrooms also reported fewer behavior problems than parents of older children.
Ann Peterson, parent of a fifth-grader, said parents of younger and older children had very different experiences this year. “The kindergarten and first-grade classes had students whose parents actually elected to send their children to Pratt,” she said. “The higher grades ended up with many of the students from Tuttle and elsewhere that had no other options, or chose not to pursue them. Unfortunately, a lot of these kids came with preexisting issues.”
Even with the challenges of high student turnover, Pratt has retained many of its signature strengths. One is a high level of support from the Prospect Park community. Many neighbors regularly volunteer, providing tutoring, walking with Glendale students to and from school, helping with school events and fundraising. Kindergarten parent Jean Garberini said, “The experience of working with the devoted parents and neighbors of the school has been wonderful, and it’s been great to have the opportunity to meet so many of my hard-working neighbors.”
The school also saw a high level of involvement from Somali families and other recent immigrants. Parent liaison Greg Isola said Pratt had several Somali parents who volunteered nearly every day and served on the school’s leadership council. He said the school has strong connections to the Somali community that are fostered through actions like providing Somali food and translation services at school events.
Pratt also continues to follow its unique model of multigenerational learning. Susan Larson-Fleming, a neighborhood resident and member of the Southeast Minneapolis Council of Learning, said that for the most part, that model is still successful. While the English classes for adult learners had to be moved off-site to make room for the additional school classrooms this year, Pratt still houses programs such as community education and Southeast Seniors. “We want to keep that multigenerational feel and support the programs for the kids but also keep the community engaged so there is support past the point where families leave,” she said.
Goals and challenges for next year
With its “transition year” behind it, Pratt now faces new challenges going forward. Perhaps the most serious is budget cuts, which have hit Pratt with a double whammy. Because the school district originally planned to have 240 students at Pratt for the 2007–08 school year, the school was given more money than it should have received, based on its actual student numbers. That money was eliminated for next year, and the school also incurred the same across-the-board cuts as all other Minneapolis schools.
The result is that the budget has been drastically cut back, reducing classroom teachers from eight to seven, eliminating the music program, canceling the parent liaison position and cutting back on education assistant time. Community members hope they can raise funds over the summer to restore some of those cuts.
The small Pratt staff will also see significant turnover. Teacher Sue Beiersdorf is retiring, and teachers Nancy Johnson and Kate Weidenbach are taking voluntary transfers. The school will also have a new principal next year, as Ellen Murphy trades positions with Anne Wade, assistant principal of the lower campus at Lake Harriet Community School. Brenda Cassellius, associate superintendent for Minneapolis Public Schools, said Wade will be a good fit for Pratt. “She comes with a wealth of experience and has already connected to the Pratt community,” she said.
In addition to raising money, Pratt parents hope to improve the school’s transportation situation, which they believe undermines its enrollment goals. Ken Mowli, parent of a kindergartener and a first-grader and chair of the parent-teacher organization, said Pratt’s busing boundaries are a problem because the school is at the very south end of its busing boundaries. “They only cover Prospect Park and the former Tuttle area in Northeast, but we can’t cross the river,” he said. Mowli said many parents from Seward and Longfellow express interest in Pratt, but they choose other schools when they find out they can’t get busing to Pratt.
Cassellius said she doesn’t see the Pratt busing boundaries changing. “If we go across the river to bus students it would involve redrawing Pratt’s current community school boundary,” she said. “We have discussed this option, and currently it is an expensive option, given the many other competing interests for limited resources within the district.”
Even with the challenges of this transition year, parents, staff and neighbors are grateful for the many things that have gone right at Pratt. Murphy strongly praised her staff, who she said were “experienced, talented and really gave it their all.” Kindergarten parent Kristyn Anderson was delighted with the attention her shy kindergartener received.
“Although the school doubled in size, it’s still a nice, small school where every adult seems to know every kid by name,” she said.
And School Board Member Pam Costain said the board is still strongly behind Pratt. “I’m personally very pleased with what happened at Pratt last year,” she said. “It’s certainly a small school, but given the huge amount of community support and the commitment to partner with us, we can manage a school that size.”