Parents want Farnsworth program to be considered for new middle school

Overcrowding has St. Paul district eyeing constructing East Side school

At a recent community information session on a proposed new East Side middle school, some parents questioned whether St. Paul Public Schools had looked at all its options.

The school district administration is considering building a new middle school in an area bounded by Larpenture and Minnehaha avenues, and Arcade Street and McKnight Road. 

The district estimates there will be a 500 student-seat shortage for middle-schoolers by the 2019-2020 school year.

Administrators said the East Side middle schools — Battle Creek, Farnsworth Upper and Parkway Montessori — are rapidly exceeding their capacity.

The St. Paul school board is expected to vote April 26 on a proposal to build a new, comprehensive middle school on the East Side. 

The district first outlined the options that were rejected because they didn’t provide a long-term solution to current overcrowding in the middle schools. 

During the analysis process, administrators said they realized the best solution was to build a new middle school.

However, some parents and East Side residents at the meeting questioned the construction of a new facility and the type of programs that should be housed within that facility.

“Any investment is a good investment; we just want it at Farnsworth,” said Melissa Cole, a life-long East Side resident and mother of a first- and a third-grader.

Cole and other members of the Farnsworth School Organization attended the meeting, asking the district administrators if they had considered using the new facility for an expansion of the Farnsworth Aerospace magnet school program. 

The district staff responded that they had considered Farnsworth, but it was cut from the list for the new construction for a number of reasons.

The proposal the district shared described the new middle as a comprehensive school, meaning it would not have a focus. 

The Farnsworth curriculum has a focus on math and science pertaining to aerospace engineering. 

“It’s not always the most desirable as a citywide magnet to be a large citywide magnet,” said Jackie Turner, chief of engagement for the school district.

She said having a large magnet school often changes the philosophy and climate of a school or program.

“We truly wanted to have our magnets to really be magnets,” Turner said.

She said her concern is that if the Farnsworth program is expanded in a larger facility, then students will start coming not for the aerospace program, but will choose it because it’s conveniently located in their neighborhood. Those new students may not be interested in future careers in math and science, which would change the dynamics of the Farnsworth classes.

Turner added, “We have purposely increased capacity at Farnsworth to help with the middle school issue that we have right now over here.” 

Cole and Anitra Krogman, mother of three children, with a child at each Farnsworth campus and Johnson High School, explained that kids are already entering the program without having gone through the whole Farnsworth system. 

Krogman and Cole explained that there are currently four sections of fifth grade and five sections of sixth grade, and that the dilution the district fears is already happening.

Cole said her first-grader and third-grader are on the waiting list to get into the Farnsworth aerospace program. Her children would be starting middle school the same time the new facility would be scheduled to open.

She said she doesn’t necessarily want her children attending Farnsworth just for the aerospace program, but rather because of the staff and the academics in general.

“I didn’t choose Farnsworth because of the aerospace. I chose it because of its reputation,” Cole said.

Cole said that in addition to the aerospace focus, favorable behavior and classroom environment were also reasons for her decision to get her children on the waitlist. 

“I think parents will choose it solely for [its reputation],” Cole said. 

The other concern parents shared was that the East Side has had schools open, fail and then close.

“I would like to see the money go towards a successful program rather than take a chance on a new “regular” middle school. As others at the meeting brought up, St. Paul Public Schools has had to close programs that have been unsuccessful and then reopen them later. Rather than risk that, I think they should bank on this successful program,” said Carrie Fraser, mother of a student at Farnworth Upper and a student at Farnsworth Lower.

“It’s a program that the East Side wants, so why not invest in a strong program already?” Krogman asked.

Cole and Krogman both asserted that investing in a strong program like Farnsworth would bring families from all over the city to the East Side, adding to the value of that investment. 

“It frustrates me that it’s so hard for my children to get a good education because I feel like I got a good education through St. Paul schools, and it wasn’t that long ago,” Cole told the administrators. 

 

Other options?

At the March 23 meeting, district officials explained that they had looked at converting and adding additions to other schools in the district, but that none of the options really solved the long-term issue of the looming middle school student-seat shortage.

The district considered converting Hazel Park Preparatory Academy back to a sixth- through eighth-grade building, but said the school would be short 100 to 200 seats by 2024. Hazel Park would require an addition, and the conversion would eliminate a PreK through eighth-grade program. The district would also need to relocate students during expansion construction. 

The district also considered converting Wellstone, a PreK through fifth-grade school, into a sixth- through eighth-grade middle school, but said that it was not located where there is a need. Wellstone also would not solve the long-term problem of being short student seats, and a new elementary school would need to be constructed to move Wellstone students into.

The district examined several options of converting existing facilities into middle schools, but consistently decided that those options would not solve the long-term issue of needing more capacity at the middle school level. 

Therefore, the district came to the conclusion it needed to create an entirely new facility that would solve the student-seat shortage, provide the option of a comprehensive middle school for the East Side, and would not require students to change schools and locations. 

 

Moving along

With the board of education slated to vote on the proposal to build a new school at its April 26 meeting, Maria Barrett, co-chair of the Farnsworth School Organization, said the school group will be discussing the issue at its next meeting.

They are hoping to line up Farnsworth parents to speak during the public comments section of the April 26 board meeting.

She said that while it feels as though the district has already made up its mind, she said the Farnsworth School Organization is working to educate as many parents as possible about the district’s proposal and how it could potentially affect Farnsworth. 

“We have a good thing going; let’s keep it going,” Cole said. 

 

Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

 

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