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Saint Paul’s Community School Plan

Saint Paul Public schools, like just about every school district in the US, is in a bit of trouble.  Budget cuts, declining enrollment, and the K-12 funding “delay” in Minnesota are all taking their toll.  They’re responded with a plan called “Schools at the Heart of the community” that addresses this and a lot more of their lingering problems all in one grand strategic plan.

Does this plan work?  I think it does.  There are a few questions and suggestions that I have outstanding, but overall this shows what a dedicated group of public servants can do under extraordinary circumstances.  They also appear to be listening to the public as they shop this plan around, meaning it will probably only get better.  I’m impressed and I want to add what I can to both the thanks and the suggestions.

Saint Paul’s public schools have been operating under a very open “choice” model for nearly 20 years.  There is a big fair in February where parents of kids ready for school can meet representatives of the schools throughout the city and make their choice from many options.  These include Montessori, French and Spanish immersion, year ‘round schooling, technology focused, and so on.  It’s been a great boon to achievement at the elementary (K-6) level and the test scores show it.

There were two problems with this model.  The first is that that choices were dizzying, with some parents overwhelmed by all the possibilities.  There were default neighborhood schools, but no one was guaranteed a place at them if they were popular with people from other parts of the city.  The other problem was that this system seemed to fall of off a cliff at seventh grade, where very traditional Junior High Schools dominated the system.  Many great programs stopped, throwing kids into a large system that they were not ready for – and loss of students to private and charter schools or simple drop-out at High School became a serious problem.

The new plan streamlines the choice by making a default community school clear and obvious for everyone.  A few citywide “magnet” programs are being dropped, but the most popular are being extended through High School.  Closer cooperation with the City of Saint Paul will mean more after school options with Parks and Recreation.  Lastly, the school district will share more facilities by co-locating two “schools” in one building.

In a time of tight budgets, the savings come from reduced facility costs and busing costs.  However, the big kicker is that the district hopes to retain 3k-4k more students, and the state funding that comes with them, to close their budget gap.  That’s my one big problem with this plan – I don’t understand where they got that number yet.

That aside, one of the schools that will no longer be a citywide magnet is Expo Elementary, the school that both of my kids have attended starting in 2000.  Expo teaches based on the Howard Gardner theory of “Multiple Intelligences”, a system that I think is absolutely critical to achievement in a diverse district.

I also worry that Saint Paul is not as “naturally integrated” as the district states.  I would hate to see the poor and minorities become shorted in the move to community as a first choice.

Having watched kids from all backgrounds, including many children of immigrants, the possibility of Expo as a choice only for people in the immediate area pains me no end.  I know that the proposed area that includes Expo was expanded to include Frogtown and other neighborhoods that need a school like this, and that helps.  But the loss of Multiple Intelligences schooling as an option for the whole city is a loss.

One of the many small details that is easily lost in this vast strategic plan is that curriculum is going to be more standardized through the district.  I’ve learned that this means that schools will no longer be able to ditch a science expert or other specialty as they concentrate on their method of teaching.  If we can add the use of Multiple Intelligences as part of the district wide methods, taking the lessons we’ve learned from Expo district wide, I think we can have a great deal more success.

That’s how I feel about this plan.  It’s a great effort that might need a little more explanation as they connect to the community – and a small suggestion that I think will make it much better for kids of all the different families who are my neighbors.  Saint Paul Public Schools is showing how great an open strategic planning process is when people have to move forward together through tough times.

What do you think?  I’d love to know your reactions to this plan or what your own School District is doing.

9 thoughts on “Saint Paul’s Community School Plan

  1. I’m going to have to believe you on this one. People tell me the plan is confusing but they can’t find anything wrong with it. If it balances the budget without screwing things up that sounds pretty good to me.

  2. Jim, the plan itself is vast and confusing. The net result at the end is a simpler system that will be much easier to understand. That part of this plan is really good, IMHO.

  3. I came back to this 3 times hoping more people would comment because I don’t know anything about this plan. It’s like people in Saint Paul don’t really care or don’t understand it at all. I haven’t heard a thing in the media.

  4. Anna, a lot of my readers are non-Saintly-City. 🙂 I also think this hasn’t been discussed nearly as much as it should be, so this may be the first time many people have seen it.

  5. Managed instruction makes evaluation easier, as all are working off the same curricula… on the other hand, there is a major risk too. Such an approach really limits the potential for educational innovation on the school and to some extent even the classroom arena. I also wonder a bit about keeping curricula development 50,000 arms lengths away from the classroom…

  6. Ron, I’m all in favor of innovation. A lot of people say that we shouldn’t experiment on kids, but we do every day by insisting that they all do the same thing! I would hope it’s obvious by now that everyone learns in a different way and that “Multiple Intelligences” is a big “Duh”.

    So you can imagine I had a lot of problems when I first heard that St Paul wants to “standardize curriculum”. I’ve been talking with people about what that means and so far I’m happy that it means that they won’t let schools leave out whole subject areas and will recommend a standard practice but not enforce it. I think we have to hold them to it, which is to say that there will never be a substitute for active engagement.

    But, for now, I support what they are talking about.

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