Photo by Amanda Mills, USCDCP
The crowd inside St. Paul’s Galtier Community School on a recent Thursday night looked like a Hollywood casting agent’s dream—if that agent was trying to find actors cut from every swath of American life. Mingling on the carpeted steps of the school’s airy central meeting space were women in colorful hijab, babies sleeping on laps, men in dress shirts, young parents in jeans and Galtier t-shirts, and teachers, their blue work lanyards still circling their necks.
An older man sitting on the bottom step was on hand in case anyone needed a Spanish interpreter, along with a young dark-haired woman, ready to serve as a Hmong translator. Two generations of families—many of them African-American—sat together, their eyes focused on the St. Paul Public Schools staff who were standing at the front of the room, microphones in hand.
The district staff had been called to Galtier by parents who wanted an answer to an urgent question: Are you going to close our school?
Galtier is a K-5 school in St. Paul’s bustling Midway neighborhood, where early 20th century housing stock bumps up against a brand new commuter rail line, connecting St. Paul to Minneapolis. The school stands is a gathering place for longtime residents and immigrant families.
It’s also a flashpoint in the struggle to keep neighborhood, public schools open in the era of “school choice.“
In 2012, the St. Paul Public School district converted Galtier, then a K-5 science magnet school with a reputation for being “rough,” into a neighborhood school. The district did this as part of a “strong schools, strong communities” campaign, designed to reprogram racially isolated, “underperforming” magnets like Galtier (The school serves a majority of African-American students, and a high number of marginalized kids. Ninety percent of them live in poverty, according to federal guidelines).
It turns out that it’s not so easy to switch up a school’s programming and student population, and call it a success. As a magnet school, Galtier’s boundaries went beyond the neighborhood around it, and into the further reaches of St. Paul. Kids were bused into Galtier, while many of the Midway area’s whiter, more affluent families chose to bus their kids out—particularly across neighborhood lines to the sought-after St. Anthony Park Elementary School. (St. Anthony Park school is a public school, but benefits from a $1 million, private foundation that provides arts and music programming to the school—something Galtier has been unable to afford.)
The Midway parents who exercise district-sponsored school choice options—which are numerous and include schools with long waiting lists—had gotten used to overlooking Galtier. This continues to pose a problem for the school. As a magnet school, Galtier was a destination for kids outside of the Midway area, which kept its numbers up and its doors open. As soon as St. Paul took away the school’s magnet status and shrunk its boundaries, the kids stopped getting bused in.
Still, Galtier won a redesign grant in 2013, as part of yet another St. Paul Public Schools reboot. The district, like many schools around the country, said it wanted to move to a more “personalized,” technology-based learning model, in order to give kids “more voice” in what they were doing at school. Target, based in Minnesota, paid for Galtier parents and staff to be immersed in an extensive, design “boot camp” experience, where everything about the school—from its walls to its curriculum—was on the table, ready to be revised and remodeled.
Here’s a description of what was in store for Galtier, according to a 2013 piece in The Line, a local media outlet:
Garage-door-like walls will open up, allowing children to move easily from room to room. Demountable partitions and easy-to-move ergonomic furniture will aid in creating flexible spaces that shape learning. The plan for Galtier’s media center is to become “more of an exploratorium,” Pfluger adds, with specific areas personalized to engage students’ varied interests. Implementation of the changes will begin next summer.
Ergonomic furniture was moved in, the walls were reconstructed, and the school got a popular new principal: Shawn Stibbins. The one thing missing, according to current Galtier families, was support from the St. Paul Public Schools. Families who bought into the revamped vision for Galtier--and hoped it would become a true school for the community--say they alone have been tasked with drumming up enrollment for Galtier. They also say they started hearing rumors, almost as soon as the paint on the remodel dried, that the district actually wanted to close the school.
Why? Jackie Turner, one of the St. Paul district staff who braved the Galtier crowd on that recent Thursday night, blamed school choice. The Midway neighborhood has two community schools, she explained: Galtier and Hamline, which has a longstanding relationship with St. Paul’s Hamline University. Both schools were magnets and are now community schools. Both schools are trying to fill their seats from the same, limited pool of neighborhood whose parents have grown quite comfortable with choosing other, “better” schools. (Hamline parents are also engaged in talks with the district about how to keep their school viable.)
“We can’t handcuff anybody and make them go to any school,” Turner told the Galtier crowd, after pointing out that only a handful of incoming kindergarten parents had put Galtier down as their first choice during St. Paul’s online enrollment process. “There’s no blame or shame. Parents might want to have kids go where the siblings are, or they might be moving.” She was trying to appease the crowd, but the Galtier stalwarts were not having it.
One parent spoke up and said that, recently, while picking her child up from a YMCA daycare spot, she overheard other parents talking about Galtier, saying they had heard the school was closing. This comment unleashed the crowd’s simmering frustration over what many parents said was the district’s inability, or unwillingness, to counteract the public’s impression that Galtier would be closing. Nobody wanted to put the school down as their first choice and risk a spot in another school, should Galtier actually be shuttered.
In a scattered landscape of winners and losers, parents gravitate to the “good” schools, and every Galtier parent who spoke up at the Thursday meeting seemed aware of this. One parent described the school choice dance that goes on when parents try to register for a school through the district’s website. She asked district staff, “Would you consider changing what pops up when you try to enroll here?” and explained that when she put Galtier down as her first choice, and a popular magnet school down as her second choice, a message popped up, telling her to rethink this. “It said, ‘Wait a minute! If you put J.J. Hill Montessori down as your second choice, you won’t get in.”
What message does that send to prospective Galtier families, she wondered, calling such a process “systemic discouragement.” Numerous other parents spoke up with emotion and mistrust evident in their voices. One father, Clayton Howatt, lost patience with the district staff’s professed helplessness in the face of school choice schemes, asking, “What has the district done to promote Galtier? Nothing. It has been two years since this building has had a change, and you have given us nothing. Zero.” No one has even stepped foot in this building, Howatt claimed.
Parents from the school’s neighborhood base described falling in love with Galtier once they walked through its doors. A Somali dad spoke up and said his daughter started at the school three years ago, as a preschooler, when she did not know any English. Now, English is her first language, he proudly told the approving crowd. “This has been the best year ever at Galtier,” he told district administrators, “Parents are connected. Tell us, in front of us, if you want to disconnect us!”
The numbers confronting Galtier are stark. One hundred and forty-four kids are signed up for next year, meaning the school will be less than half full. Still, the community gathered at the school, to speak up for it. It takes more than two years for a new model to take hold, teachers and parents alike said. Give us more time.
A teacher who said she’d been at the school for five years, from when it was a little “spicy,” asked district administrators to consider that big schools aren’t everything. “Kids feel good, connected, and wanted here. I understand about money, but why can’t you see that money isn’t everything?” This touched on another sore spot. While floating plans to close Galtier and convert it to an early childhood center, the district has earmarked $11 million for an expansion at St. Anthony Park Community School--where the neighborhood’s “white kids go,” in the words of one Galtier parent (who is also white).
Towards the end of the meeting, St. Paul staff credited the Galtier parents for their persistence and said the school will not close, as was planned, at the end of this school year. But, given the district’s own embrace of school choice, and stacking the deck against schools like Galtier by urging parents to reconsider their choice when they register online, can Galtier remain open long term?
Or will the district find a way to return to policies that support neighborhood schools and commit to serving children where they live, instead of pushing a winners-and-losers model that keeps everybody scrambling?
Just as in the post-Brown era, when public schools were closed in some communities and the concept of “school choice” was created so that southern White families could avoid school integration, “school choice” is being used to justify the unwillingness of our education policymakers to provide each of our children with a high-quality education in their neighborhood public schools.
--Journey 4 Justice Alliance, 2014 Report: “Death By a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage”
Sarah Lahm is the Progressive Education Northcentral Regional Fellow and a Minneapolis-based writer and former English instructor. She is the winner of a 2014 Nation Institute Investigative Fund grant, and blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com