Despite years of declining enrollment, staff and many parents are enthusiastic about the new, district-funded program of gender-segregated classes at North End Elementary. Their enthusiasm holds in spite of the challenges the school faces this year: a 9% drop in enrollment and a $395,133 budget cut, or 13.4% from last year. Both enrollment and total budget are likely to continue decreasing as total numbers of elementary-school aged students in St Paul drops, part of larger demographic trends nation-wide.
The decline in enrollment is not a good sign coming hot on the heels of a major restructuring, which introduced gender-segregated classrooms, beginning with kindergarten through third grade this fall and adding a new grade level each year as this year’s third graders get older.
According to Hamilton Bell, North End’s principal, the future is less impending doom and more facing challenges with new tools.
Bell says other changes include:
• bringing a strong emphasis on college to all classrooms,
• teaching organizational skills from second grade on using the AVID college preparatory curriculum,
• a new behavior intervention method that emphasizes solving behavior issues in the classroom,
• and establishing an outpost of the East Side Family Centerin the school. The Center is a neighborhood-based, government- and privately-funded “family resource center” that teaches parenting skills and provides a variety of support services to poor and working-class families.
Bell believes most of the decline can be attributed to foreclosures in the neighborhood. In an interview last month, he cited the 93% of North End’s students who receive free or reduced-price lunches – used as a yardstick to measure a school’s poverty rate – as evidence of the neighborhood’s vulnerability to the ongoing housing crisis. Despite the budget cuts, he said, “my budget supports the staff that I have.”
Blue symbols represent foreclosures in North End neighborhood. Red arrow points to North End school. Map courtesy of foreclosures from the MLS website
According to Brett Johnson of the St Paul Public School’s Community Relations department, no class sections or teachers were lost with the enrollment and budget losses. “You lose a few kids in each grade level and it spreads out in such a way that it’s not possible to cut an entire position,” Johnson said in an email.
Thanh Tran, a fourth-grade teacher at North End, said that only about 10% of his students’ parents are unhappy with the new classrooms. Tran said those parents feel the uniforms do not allow students to “individualize” themselves, or do not agree that boys and girls should be separated.
“[The other 90%] see it as their kids have fewer distractions in class, and they like how we tailor our curriculums to boys’ and girls’ learning styles. For example, there’re more activities for the boys,” Tran said. He added that many parents and students like the introduction of uniforms. Tran said he and his fellow teachers speak with parents frequently as part of new teaching methods introduced along with the gender-segregated classrooms, where teachers keep parents informed about both the good and bad aspects of the child’s progress in school.
“The kids are so proud of their uniforms,” said Jackie Stoeher, a custodian who has worked at North End for 35 years. “Even the teachers are more inspired…everyone’s positively enthused” by the host of changes introduced since last year.
North End students at the dedication of a new bridge to the second-floor entrance of the school.
Melissa Essler, North End’s curriculum coordinator, said many families are also “excited” by the East Side Family Center’s presence in the school.
Bringing the East Side Family Center to North End Elementary is emblematic of the St Paul Schools’ plan to revive North End by firmly tying it into the community. This plan has included sending teachers from North End and administrators from both North End and district headquarters out into the community “to get the word out to parents that there’s a school in this neighborhood committed to their kid’s education in a respectful environment, right here in their neighborhood,” said Bee Lee, the Bilingual Outreach Coordinator at the district’s Office of Community Relations.
While parents seem enthusiastic about the school, Lee said more efforts still needed to be made. In particular, he pointed to families living within a mile of the school, whose children are not eligible for busing, saying his office was still working on ideas to assuage these parents’ safety concerns at having their children walk to school.
James Sanna is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.