School board vice chair Jim Vue, who spearheaded the revised plan, expressed hesitation about closing any schools—including his own son's. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Outside the St. Paul Public Schools headquarters on an unusually warm December night, Yasmin Muridi, a bilingual family liaison at Highwood Hills Elementary, high-fived staffers from Wellstone Elementary. 

Families from both of those schools had successfully fought off the district’s plans to close their schools. LEAP High School, which serves new immigrant students, also escaped closure. The revised plan, which keeps Highwood Hills, LEAP, and Wellstone open, passed the board on a 5–2 vote.

Around 50 community members filled the boardroom for a two-hour meeting to watch the vote, some wearing LEAP sweatshirts or holding Wellstone yard signs. The final plan will close six schools.

Outside the school-board meeting, sighs of relief mixed with sadness for the schools that will close and trepidation over next steps.

Abdi Barkat, a software engineer and Highwood Hills father who led the school’s parent response, said the win had not come easily. Every day for weeks, he came to meetings after school to fight for his children’s school.

“I’m feeling good, but also I’m feeling devastated for closing other schools, too,” he said. “I care for all of the kids to get the same education my kids are getting. That’s the fairness.”

Following weeks of outcry from immigrant families, board members revised the original plan to also shutter LEAP High School, Highwood Hills Elementary, and Wellstone Elementary.

At LEAP, new immigrant students explained that the small school has provided a safe place for them to learn English. At Highwood Hills, where many students are Somali, the school serves as a valuable community hub for the relatively isolated neighborhood. And at Wellstone, home to a dual-immersion program in Spanish and English as well as a BioSmart science track, families pointed out that the student population and course offerings meet the district criteria for a sustainable school. 

The final version of the plan, dubbed Envision SPPS, will close six schools in a consolidation effort to provide all students with a “well-rounded education”—a term that includes specialists in subjects like art, science, and world languages. Administration officials proposed the plan as the district faces steeply declining enrollment. By providing better education at all schools, they reasoned, the district would be more likely to retain current students and attract future ones.

But while parents, staff, and school-board members expressed relief that some of the schools would stay open under the revised proposal, even those leading the plan expressed uneasiness about school closures.

“I know that no matter what the data say, closing a school is traumatic for students, families and staff,” Superintendent Joe Gothard wrote in an email to district families. 

“Closing schools is the last thing that I, members of my leadership team, or board members want to do. But when our current enrollment reality is negatively impacting our ability to provide every student with the education and services they need and deserve, something has to change.”

Jim Vue, the board’s vice chair, spearheaded the plan revision that spared Wellstone, LEAP, and Highwood Hills—a decision arrived at through a consensus process with other board members, he said. 

Yet before the vote, Vue, a father of four students in St. Paul Public Schools, expressed hesitation.

“Earlier today as I was getting ready to come here tonight and vote on this proposal, my son came home from school and said, ‘Dad, don’t close my school,’” Vue said. His seventh-grade son’s school, Parkway Montessori Middle School, did not get a reprieve. “I realized I hadn’t really grappled with the fact that I’m closing his school.”

Vue then asked the rest of the board to consider the possibility of closing no schools next year.

Jim Vue, vice chair of the school board, described struggling with the closing plan: “Earlier today as I was getting ready to come here tonight and vote on this proposal, my son came home from school and said, ‘Dad, don’t close my school.’”

Chauntyll Allen, a board member with roots in the Black Lives Matter movement, said she felt proud of how the board had listened to community protests and incorporated feedback in its revised plan.

“I’m not exactly feeling wholehearted about the idea of closing any building, but I do know we need to make some drastic changes,” she said. The district needs to focus its resources on attaining better academic outcomes for diverse students, she said. 

After an emotional discussion, the motion to keep all the schools open failed, with only Vue and John Brodrick voting in favor. 

Vue then introduced the revised Envision SPPS proposal that he’d spearheaded. It passed 5–2, with Brodrick and Zuki Ellis opposed.

The crowd remained quiet after the vote, and slowly trickled out before the meeting concluded.

‘It made no sense’

Julio Almanza, a former St. Paul administrator and Duluth superintendent, wore a sweatshirt in support of LEAP. “It made no sense what the administration was proposing,” he said about the suggested LEAP closing. “It still makes no sense what they’ve approved. Because they take away the community schools that are the heart of the community. Like Highwood Hills.”

“That’s why we fought,” Yasmin, the Highwood Hills liaison, said.

“You were right to fight,” Almanza said. The push for larger schools throughout the city concerned him, he said. “Will higher enrollment make things better for kids? I don’t know.”

For Abdi Barkat, the conversation about school closures misses the mark. School officials need to do more to compete with charter schools, rather than close schools, he said. He would see St. Paul invest more in bilingual family liaisons and provide extra resources toward field trips and after-school resources. And if closures are necessary, the district should focus them on rich areas, he said, rather than poor areas like St. Paul’s East Side.

Wellstone community members left the meeting carrying the green lawn signs that have become a staple of recent school board meetings. Several staff members declined to speak on the record, but expressed both relief and concerns that their fight is not over. In a proposal introduced Monday night, the board signaled its intention to merge the district’s two Spanish immersion programs into one building after another year of meetings and community input. That could still result in closing Wellstone.

As it stands, families that attend the schools closing next year will need to pick new classrooms for their kids. “Student placement staff will contact affected families to make sure you understand what your options are,” Superintendent Gothard wrote in his email to parents.

“Every student will have the option to either go to the new school their current school is merging with OR to go to another school of their choosing, such as their community school or one of our many magnet schools. Priority placement will be given to students who are affected by these school changes.”

Families will have the best chance of receiving priority school placement if they apply by February 25, district officials said.

A difficult choice

After the meeting, Vue said the vote had been a painful decision. 

“I just worked so hard on this with everybody,” he said. “Except for the most important people.”

Vue explained that his seventh-grade son attends an autism program at Parkway Montessori. Because of the specialized programming, he’s been with the same classmates throughout his childhood. “The hard thing about this decision is breaking those families up,” Vue said. “He’s got some really close friends. And if you know anything about autism, just making friends is one of the hardest things to do. So this was really, really tough.”

He introduced the motion to keep all the schools open to “have all our school-board members grapple with that in the way that I felt like I hadn’t,” he said. 

Still, Vue said, he understood that the small Montessori middle school had not lived up to the district’s hopes, and the board needed to make decisions for the long term. Despite the anguish of the votes, he said, his conscience was clear.

Parkway will close at the end of this school year and reopen next fall as a Hmong dual-immersion middle school. 

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