Newport Elementary created a welcoming environment for Hoyam Elkhedir's family. From left: Summer Ibrahim, 12, whose time at Newport Elementary prepared her well for middle school; Hoyam Elkhedir, the children's mother; 2-year-old Awab, whom Hoyam hopes will attend Newport Elementary someday; and current Newport students Saga Ibrahim, 8, and Omer Ibrahim, 6. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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As Marien Fernández-Paris Razo prepared to send her daughter to kindergarten, she carefully researched schools in the St. Paul suburbs to find the best fit. Newport Elementary School jumped out at her. 

Fernández-Paris noted the high test scores in math and reading. She read online reviews about how hard staff worked to support students. And because the school is so small—about 250 students—her daughter Jaslynn could easily form relationships with staff. 

Jaslynn, now 6, has hypotonia, a condition that causes low muscle tone; for Jaslynn, that means physical disabilities and a speech delay. Fernández-Paris wanted a small school where Jaslynn could get personalized attention to help her speech, and where both English and Spanish would be embraced. The family moved to Newport to enroll Jaslynn in the school.

The choice has paid off. “It was everything it said on paper and more,” Fernández-Paris said. “My daughter has made such a change.”

Jaslynn’s teachers have helped her build confidence in communicating and trying new activities, Fernández-Paris said. She’s excited to try roller skating and the climbing wall in gym class, rather than shying away due to her physical challenges. She has also started to participate in show-and-tell, no longer cowed by her speech delay. 

“It’s like seeing a little flower growing,” Fernández-Paris said. “The teachers make the impossible possible.”

But in a few years, Jaslynn may have to be transplanted. Their school district, South Washington County Schools, has proposed a $462 million facilities plan for construction and renovation, to address overcrowding, population growth, and new housing construction. As part of that proposal, district leaders would close Newport Elementary. 

The proposed closing of Newport Elementary, in a plan announced March 3, strikes Newport parents as unjust and unnecessary. To date, there’s been no public hearing—typically a state requirement before a school closure. Parents say district leaders have not listened to them or provided adequate opportunities to comment.

“I don’t think our voices have been heard,” Fernández-Paris said.

The school board will vote on this plan on April 21; in an August special election, voters will then consider a bond referendum to enact the facilities plan. If voters and the school board approve the plan, Newport Elementary would close as soon as 2025. The school would become an early learning center.

Fernández-Paris understands that the district needs to upgrade facilities for its middle schools and high schools. But she does not understand why those needs should result in the closure of her daughter’s elementary school. She worries the move will be disruptive for Jaslynn, or even cause her to backtrack.

“Why close a school that is working?” she asked.

A small school in a big district

The South Washington County School District spans an 84-square-mile area southeast of St. Paul. The district includes Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park, and Afton: a mix of affluent and working-class suburbs, as well as more agricultural areas stretching nearly to the Wisconsin border. With 19,000 students, it’s the sixth-largest school district in Minnesota. 

While many districts in Minnesota brace for enrollment declines and accompanying budget cuts, South Washington County Schools faces the opposite problem: growing enrollment and overcrowding.

At Woodbury High School, some students eat lunch on the cafeteria floor. At Pine Hill Elementary School, in Cottage Grove, one set of bathrooms serves the entire school, and staff have turned a storage closet into a makeshift occupational therapy space. At East Ridge High School, in Woodbury, hallways are difficult to navigate during passing time, since the school is over capacity by several hundred students. 

Yet parents of color in Newport, like those in bigger cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, fear their families will face the worst impacts from the district’s plans to address population change.

Newport, a small town with fewer than 4,000 residents, is the lowest-income community in the school district, according to census data. Its elementary school serves a more diverse population than any other school in the district. More than half the students are children of color, and 22 percent are English language learners—the highest percentage of any elementary school in South Washington County Schools.

Newport, a small town with fewer than 4,000 residents, is the lowest-income community in the school district, according to census data. Its elementary school serves a more diverse population than any other school in the district. More than half the students are children of color, and 22 percent are English language learners.

It’s also the smallest elementary school in the district. And unlike other district schools, its enrollment is not growing. State data show the school’s student body has declined by 10 percent since 2015.

But parents whose children are learning English or have special education needs say the school’s size is an asset.

“Because the school size is small, the kids get all that attention from the teacher,” said Hoyam Elkhedir, a mother of six who lives in Woodbury. “We feel comfortable, safe, and we belong.” 

Elkhedir’s family immigrated from Sudan, hoping to find better educational opportunities for their children. Two of her children currently attend Newport Elementary; the older kids graduated from the school; she hopes the youngest will have the chance to attend Newport when he’s old enough. 

Newport Elementary has provided her kids with personalized attention and set them up for success in middle school and beyond, she said. Other schools aren’t as welcoming, she said: Her children might not belong, she worries, “because they are Black.” 

“Newport Elementary School should be an example for all elementary schools, because of the size and the care the students get,” Elkhedir said. “English is the second language for my kids, but they didn’t find any struggles because they accept them where they are.”

Her son, a Newport kindergartener, was not yet speaking when he arrived at school. His teachers placed him in speech therapy, and within a month he was talking. He’s now reading well, too, Elkhedir said.

“Because of the relationship between a student and teacher, it’s easy to see if something is wrong,” Elkhedir said. “I think my kids blend in in this Newport Elementary environment because it’s a small environment. When they go to a bigger school, who’s going to care about them?”

Under the district’s proposal, Newport Elementary students would be assigned to three different elementary schools. Most would go to Cottage Grove Elementary, which would expand to serve more than 900 students. The teachers that Elkhedir and Fernández-Paris praised so highly might not come with their students: They’d have to bid on positions in other schools, and would receive new assignments based on seniority.

A ‘tremendously rushed’ process

The district’s proposal would transform Newport Elementary School into an early learning center serving children from birth through age 5. The site would provide classroom space for about 700 kids enrolled in early childhood special education, early childhood family education, preschool, and prekindergarten. It would also host evaluations and screenings for young children.  

Currently, the district has more demand for these programs than it can meet, said Pepe Barton, the communications and community relations director for South Washington County Schools.

The district reports that it maintains a waitlist for its early-childhood family education programs. More state and federal focus on early childhood education means a growing need for preschool programs. And the district plans to sell its District Program Center building, which currently houses many early learning programs and screenings. 

Barton said that the district weighed the low enrollment at Newport with the need to expand early childhood programming, and the need to make efficient use of existing district buildings.

Newport parents who want to weigh in on the plan have found themselves frustrated: The district has not scheduled a public hearing.

Under Minnesota law, a school board must hold a public hearing to receive public testimony before making a final decision to close a “schoolhouse.” The board policies for South Washington County Schools also note that the board must hold a public hearing before closing a school.

But what does it mean to close a schoolhouse?

“Statute does not provide a clear answer about what closing a schoolhouse means,” said Mamisoa Knutson, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Education, in an email to Sahan Journal. “In this situation, we have advised the school to consult their legal counsel.”

Previous legal cases have granted Minnesota districts broad authority to change the grade composition of a school without holding a public hearing—for example, to turn a middle school into a high school. But the law does not specify whether an early learning center would be classified as a schoolhouse.

Marvin Taylor, a Newport City Council member, said the plan had been “tremendously rushed.” An early learning center would not anchor the Newport community the same way the elementary school does, he said. 

“Those are parents dropping in for a little class here and there, a little screening here and there,” he said. “That’s not, to me, rooted in the community at all.”

Barton, the district spokesperson, said that after settling on a final proposal March 3, the district presented the plan in public school-board meetings and workshops. The district also held information sessions for staff and community members. But none of those meetings has constituted an official public hearing.

Following the information sessions, Newport community members provided feedback to staff, he said. As part of that feedback, the district revised its plan to change attendance boundaries for Newport high-school students.

If the bond referendum passes in August, the district plans to hold a public hearing, Barton said. But at that point, it will be too late to reconsider the closure of Newport Elementary. “We don’t anticipate any changes to the plan after the election,” he said.

Newport Elementary parents push back 

Fernández-Paris spoke at a school-board meeting on March 24, pleading with the district to keep Newport Elementary open. But the board limits comments at school-board meetings to three speakers per topic, each of whom may speak for three minutes.

For Taylor, the City Council member, the potential closing of Newport Elementary School would strike at the heart of a community that is finally building back after decades of economic stagnation and decline. The school serves as a critical shared community space in a town that does not have a county library or regional park, and where the hardware store and bank have recently closed. 

Now the town is growing again in population and economic activity, with 200 new single-family homes and a large business park. The town will break ground on a new City Hall this year. But losing the school could mean losing the opportunity to build the relationships so crucial to a small town, he said.

“We become more just a bedroom community that doesn’t have a focal point,” he said.

The South Washington County school board will vote on the facilities plan on Thursday night. If the school board approves the plan, voters will consider the plan in a bond election on August 9.

Correction: a previous version of this story suggested that Newport has no public library. The town has a library run by the city, but no county library.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.