Parents initiate lawsuit against North Side school closings

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Parents want North Side schools to stay.

An excellent principal had turned Lincoln Community School around, and Blair Lee was excited about the prospects for his two stepchildren enrolled at the historic school building.

“This school was working,” Lee said. “Grades at Lincoln were up to par.” Now Lincoln is closed, along with four other elementary schools on the North Side. Lee’s stepchildren, Jerica Gillespie, 10, and Joseph Gillespie, 13, will have to change schools.

Lee is among about 30 members of Save Our Children, an informal coalition formed to protest the closings. Parents and their supporters have filed a lawsuit against the Minneapolis Public School District. The other closed schools are W. Harry Davis, Jordan Park, North Star and Shingle Creek.

“They’re speaking for us without knowing what we want,” Lee said of school administrators.

The lawsuit filed by attorney Jordan Kushner alleges that the closings were discriminatory and illegal because they singled out five schools that have a predominantly African-American student body and are located in the most heavily concentrated minority neighborhood in the school district.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals declined to issue a temporary order in the case. It would have required the school district to cease all planning for the changes due in September, when school reopens. It may be months before the court rules on the merits of the case.

JoAnn Ulm, who had three grandchildren at Jordan Park in 2006-2007, said the lives of children on the North Side are unstable enough without the need to change schools. Some are or have been homeless. Many have moved repeatedly as their parents struggle to make ends meet.

Ulm is raising her four grandchildren. The three former Jordan Park students are Jesse, 10, and twins Joseph and Jonathan, 8. The fourth grandchild, Tela, 15, is a student at Patrick Henry High School.

The mostly low-income residents of the Jordan Park neighborhood have built a community, Ulm said, and now the school district is “tearing our community apart.”

During the 2006-2007 school year, Jordan Park went through a reorganization mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind act. The action was required because students did not make adequate progress on math and reading tests in some recent years. The changes included a new principal, who picked a staff. Nearly all of the teachers were new to the school; Ulm said only two from the old staff were retained.

“We were told we had a three-year window to succeed,” Ulm said. “I assumed there would be no huge changes. I was very disappointed that they closed the school, primarily because of this.”

Those protesting the School District’s action usually do not dispute the fact that some schools had to be closed because of large decreases in enrollment. But many say the wrong schools were chosen, and they typically mention Jordan Park and Lincoln in particular.

The historic Lincoln building once was the home of Lincoln Junior High School. Lee said it is in good shape. It has new plumbing, a new security system and solar power. Jordan Park is a new school; construction was completed in 1999.

Lincoln was a safe school, Lee said, and its former students won’t find that safety at some other North Side schools.

He and his wife, Terinda Lee, plan to send Jerica and Joseph to Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School. They will have a 2.5-mile bus ride. Ulm has not made a final decision on a new school but said she might send her grandchildren to Nellie Stone.