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Denfeld-East school equity issues addressed at Duluth School Board meeting

The Duluth school district's efforts toward offering more equity between Denfeld and East high schools have fallen short, according to the community group that formed this winter to address the issue.

The Duluth School Board held a meeting Monday where district administration laid out changes it could make and was making, and what it would cost to begin some of the higher-priority suggestions of the group.

The Denfeld parents and educators in the group are working to address the needs of Denfeld, which has about 500 fewer students than East — meaning less access to advanced courses. It also has more low-income students, students of color and special education students.

The group said it was pleased with some of the district's decisions, but others were concerning, said parent Kevin Skwira-Brown. He called the district's process "hidden, exclusionary and top-down."

A central theme of the meeting, and a focus of the group, is how a certain kind of state funding meant to help "under-prepared" students is spent. Each school is allocated an amount based on the number of students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. Half of that amount must stay with the school and half can be used elsewhere, and is. The district uses it to lower class sizes in all schools. The community group says schools should keep what's theirs in order to help narrow problematic achievement gaps and raise graduation rates.

Some board members agreed, and appear to be moving toward a future discussion about changing such allocations. District administration warned that unless there is a replacement for that money — such as an increased operating levy — it could drastically alter class sizes in schools.

Board member Alanna Oswald asked for an explanation of why the district handles the money in the way it does.

"In my mind, an equitable situation is Denfeld gets more and East should be getting less," she said.

Next year Denfeld will receive $461,758 and East $474,014. Denfeld is actually allocated $719,215 and East $118,675. If each school were to keep what is allocated relative to its numbers of students taking part in the federal lunch program, East would lose nearly three teachers, district officials said, increasing class sizes.

On average per student, Denfeld receives more money as a whole than East — $5,271 vs. $3,990.

Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the district is following past practice in its division of compensatory education funding.

Parent Karen Perry said that while the conversation was focused on Denfeld, she said many of the same issues resonate throughout the district, especially for kids of color. That type of funding helps meet basic needs, she said.

"You are spending (an estimated $900,000) on mulch," she said, referring to the upcoming replacement of the rubber playground mulch that has concerned many Duluth parents. "I care more about my child reading at grade level than the mulch."

The community group said it was happy with the addition of a half-time special education case manager and another integration specialist at Denfeld, along with the planned installation of telepresence capabilities at both high schools, with the intention of making more course offerings available to Denfeld students.

But it doesn't think the one-time $150,000 earmarked in the budget toward equity issues is enough. It doesn't like that there is no plan to improve absenteeism via transportation fixes, such as picking up kids, at least in the winter, who live inside the two-mile radius. High school students who live outside the two-mile radius of their school can ride the bus, but those inside cannot. Denfeld counselor Diane Fitzgerald said there are many students who don't come to school because they don't have the gear to walk in poor weather.

Gronseth said more data was necessary on the need for that before spending the money, also noting that other schools have the same needs, and should be considered, too.

District education equity coordinator William Howes, who said he is also the parent of a Native American student enrolled at East, cautioned the community group in using data that says "there are all these needs for different groups of people to achieve the desires for a select few."

The group has emphasized the need for more advanced courses at Denfeld, he said, which has little to do with graduation rates of all students.

"What I hear is East students should have less because of graduation rates," he said. "How much less does my son have to be worth ... to get this figured out? Money is not the only way to address this."

The point, Fitzgerald said, was that all kids should have the same opportunities, "or as many as they want, to be successful."