The St. Paul School Board is preparing to vote Nov. 16, 2021, on a plan that would close schools including Galtier and Jackson elementaries and the LEAP Academy High School, and make program changes at others. Supporters of LEAP fear their voices aren’t being heard.
As of Monitor deadline the school board was hosting listening sessions and meetings to review the proposal. Whether the actions will be amended remains to be seen, as the administration has emphasized the need to have the entire package go forward.
The closings and changes are proposed as part of the larger Envision SPPS plan, which if approved by the school board would be implemented starting in fall 2022. Eleven work groups of more than 100 people, including school staff, parents, community partners and other organizations, studied options for the past year. But the work groups have come under fire for not being inclusive.
Here’s the changes for other area schools:
• Galtier and Hamline would merge, with the Galtier building possibly used for a preschool program.
• Jackson would close. Students in the Hmong Dual Language program would transfer to Phalen Lake Elementary. Students in the community program would attend Maxfield.
3,000 students displaced
Envision SPPS would displace about 3,000 students or 9%. It’s not known how many teachers and administrators would lose their jobs.
Teens, young adults affected by LEAP changes
While the elementary schools eyed for change have had parents and families turning out in force, LEAP brings adult and teen voices to the table. The school serves students ages 15-20 who are new to the United States and who are learning English while earning a high school diploma. It is considered an alternative high school, and provides an educational opportunity for students whose needs often do not match the offerings provided in traditional high schools.
While district officials contend the students can be served at other schools, LEAP supporters are skeptical. They are asking the school board to consider alternatives, such as relocating the program. They also object to what they see as a very tight timeline for change.
District officials have said they’d work with students and families to find new programs for LEAP students. The transition would start in fall 2022.
Matt Olson, who teaches music at LEAP, described students who felt lost at other high schools before attending LEAP. He recently asked school board members to imagine the loneliness and isolation students feel at other schools.
“He literally wandered through high school,” Olson said of one student’s experience before transferring to LEAP.
Faculty members said the students wouldn’t have the same level of support at other schools. The LEAP staff is trauma-informed, to be able to deal with the unique issues each student has as a refugee.
Graduates have also spoken out, with one telling the School Board that “LEAP was the place that made me feel at home again.”
Anne Lowe has taught for 16 years at LEAP. She said the school creates an atmosphere of belonging and support that its students use to succeed as adults, to become contributing community members and leaders.
‘This is going to be hard’
Declining birth rates and increased competition from charter schools, and school choice are cited as reasons to move from smaller schools to larger schools with more resources. Only about 63 percent of all St. Paul school-age children attend public schools. Others are home-schooled, open-enroll elsewhere or attend private or charter schools.
St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard has emphasized at board meetings that the change is not so much about cost savings as it is about keeping schools viable. Nor is it about the pandemic and education changes tied to that. “While it will create some efficiencies, at its core it’s about making all of our schools sustainable. I know no matter what we say or how it sounds the reasons are, this is going to be hard.”
But LEAP supporters say change will also be very hard for newcomer students. Teacher Sandy Lucas asked what message closing LEAP sends to the greater community. “What does this say about how we treat our most vulnerable?”
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