Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, July 27, 2013 – Rebecca Noecker gave birth to her first child this spring, but she’s been dwelling on high school lately.
She and other residents of St. Paul’s West Side have gathered at her home to strategize. They’ve reached out to school principals. They’ve fanned out to survey parents in the neighborhood.
They’re calling themselves West Siders for Strong Schools. They’re setting out to undercut misconceptions about the area’s schools and advocate for more academic offerings in a district corner they say historically has gotten short shrift.
Their ultimate goal: Reverse an exodus of local students to schools outside the West Side and the district. Almost 60 percent of West Side students go to school outside the area.
But first on the agenda: Launch a Spanish immersion program at Humboldt Secondary School and combat its stubborn lackluster reputation.
“On the West Side, we are proud of so much in our community,” Noecker said. “But something we aren’t always proud of is our schools. We want to change that.”
District officials say they are eager to team up with the group.
They point out Superintendent Valeria Silva’s Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan already has spurred new investment in West Side schools. That includes more than $3 million to remodel shuttered Roosevelt Elementary, which will reopen as Riverview Elementary’s new and roomier home this fall.
‘A BIG CATCH-22’
On a recent evening, Noecker and Martha Alvarado set out from Alvarado’s house with a map of the West Side and a stack of survey forms. The survey’s questions gauge attitudes toward local schools and the changes parents would like to see.
“We’re just a bunch of parents talking with other parents about our kids and our schools,” Noecker explains when residents step out of their homes to chat.
With the first handful of respondents, a pattern emerges. They rave about the neighborhood. But on the list of schools they’ve chosen or considered? Highland Park and nearby Adams elementaries. L’Etoile du Nord on the East Side. The charter Nova Classical Academy. Somerset Elementary in Mendota Heights.
A toddler peeking from her side, Julie Scanlon tells Noecker and Alvarado she’s compared test scores and consulted fellow parents. She’s not sure she’s ready to take a chance on her local schools. And she’s worried the Strong Schools push to keep students closer to home might limit her options.
Yes, the district has a plan to strengthen neighborhood schools, but in the meantime, Scanlon says, “I don’t know if I can take on that responsibility and sacrifice my daughter’s education. It’s a big catch-22.”
Alvarado’s own daughter is heading to kindergarten at Adams Spanish Immersion in the West Seventh neighborhood in the fall. Last year, the district launched a similar immersion program at West Side’s Riverview. Still, Alvarado says, her family decided to play it safe with the more established program, where parent involvement runs deep.
But at the same time, the Alvarados and friends like Noecker started talking about the local kids shuttling to schools outside the West Side and the damage that does to the fabric of the neighborhood.
“All my neighbors on my block have sent their kids to Highland and Central (high schools),” said Alex Gordon, a group member. When residents opt for schools miles away instead of nearby Humboldt, “you lose a sense of community that way.”
Partly, it’s an image problem, group members say.
They have visited Humboldt, an environmental magnet school for middle and high schoolers, and talked with staff and students. Now they are convinced the perception of a rough dropout factory plagued by low expectations could not be more unfair. They speak of a strong veteran leader in Principal Mike Sodomka and dedicated educators.
Granted, test scores continue to lag (30 percent of students scored proficient on the state reading test last year) but the parent group says it’s important to see these in the context of the school’s demographics: More than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and more than 40 percent are learning English.
On the heels of a federally funded effort to make over the school, its on-time graduation rate has climbed almost 10 percent in just five years. At 53 percent, the school still trails the district average of 68 percent. Class sizes are small, and opportunities to earn college credit have increased.
But the group’s members also want to look for ways to enrich programming at local schools.
“On the one hand, there are negative misperceptions, and we want to fight them,” said Noecker. “But on the other, there are real inequities.”
Members say they still see a relative dearth of the specialized or advanced offerings that can draw parents to a school, from International Baccalaureate to Montessori. Down the road, they’d like to advocate for more electives and extracurricular activities at Humboldt.
But their first objective is to explore starting a Spanish dual immersion program at Humboldt, in which native English and Spanish speakers learn in both tongues. Now, the district’s three elementary Spanish immersion programs all feed students into Highland Park Middle School.
Jackie Turner, the district’s family engagement chief, gave Noecker feedback on the survey. They have discussed hosting a joint parent forum in the fall. Turner says she was impressed by the group’s grassroots energy and collaborative approach.
“They are not positioning themselves as a group of angry parents,” she said. “We agreed to continue to work together.”
Turner pointed to the new Riverview immersion program, the Roosevelt remodel and an increase in West Side pre-kindergarten slots as evidence the district is not neglecting the area. It also is teaming up with several nonprofits like Boys & Girls Club to offer new after-school programs in the fall.
Armando Camacho, the president of West Side nonprofit Neighborhood House and a 1993 Humboldt graduate, says he is heartened by these district steps — and by the parent push to keep the momentum going.
He said he is especially glad the group is shining a spotlight on Humboldt, which for him was a springboard to college and a successful career.
“Humboldt for many years has been neglected by the school district,” says Camacho, a former teacher and administrator in the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts. “Finally, parents and the community are saying, ‘Enough is enough.'”
Keith Hardy, the St. Paul school board’s liaison to the West Side, says the group’s effort is a prime opportunity for the district to raise the profile of that area’s schools.
Members of the group, several of whom are parents of young children, say it might take years to see a major payoff of their efforts. And that’s OK, said Noecker. “We are in this for the long haul.”