Denfeld High School in Duluth has 250 fewer students today than when it reopened in 2011 after extensive renovations. Its enrollment stands at about 1,000.

Across town, enrollment at East High School has remained stable or grown slightly during the same period, to more than 1,600 students.

The disparity is concerning for many parents and students,

because it has meant fewer opportunities in some ways for Denfeld’s students and continued crowded classrooms at East.  

In 2009, a secondary-school boundary extending from Sixth Avenue East up to Kenwood Avenue and Howard Gnesen and Airport roads was approved by the Duluth School Board as part of the district’s $315 million long-range facilities plan, or Red Plan, which closed a high school, two middle schools and several elementary schools to consolidate, renovate and build new schools.

It set in motion a plan to better balance low-income and minority populations of middle and high school students. But since then, gaps in some of those populations have widened between the schools.

The Red Plan also aimed to have two high schools of equal size; then-Superintendent Keith Dixon told the News Tribune in 2007 that the two high schools needed to be the same size to provide the best class offerings. But the greatest and most obvious disparity in enrollment statistics today is the sheer difference in student numbers between Denfeld and East.

The goal of the 2009 boundary line was that “regardless of where a student lived and where they attended, they would have not just a good education but an equitable education regardless of their ZIP code,” said Kevin Skwira-Brown, a Lincoln Park Middle School parent who was involved in community planning for new schools and boundaries. “Time has revealed that that isn’t the case as much as I think all of us would wish.”

His daughter, for example, wasn’t given the chance to take a Spanish class at Lincoln Park this year as an eighth-grader. Because of interest, only German is offered at the school. Spanish is, however, offered at Duluth’s other middle school, on the east side of town.

At the high school level, the number of course sections and offerings have been a point of contention for many Denfeld families. The issue was crystallized last spring during a School Board meeting by then-junior Lucy Billings, who told the board: “My address should not determine the quality of my education.”

The Duluth school district plans to study changes to elementary school boundaries in an attempt to even out enrollment among those schools - many of which are at capacity. Some residents are asking that the district consider redrawing lines for the secondary schools, too.

Scheduling Students at the Denfeld and East choose from the same course catalog, but interest, scheduling conflicts and money allotted to schools for everything from teachers to support staff play into whether students can actually take a particular class, and how many sections of each are available. This school year, 30 courses - either a semester or a year in length - at Denfeld and 23 at East were not offered. Those are out of a possible 166 choices offered for the first and second semester combined.

 It’s often advanced or elective choices that are cut. At Denfeld this year, those include German V, chamber orchestra and the College in the Schools human anatomy and physiology. At East, Ojibwe language and culture and introductory physics were among those cut. Some sections aren’t offered at either school this year, including some marketing, accounting and computer classes.

The College in the Schools classes - in which college credit is earned - are popular, Denfeld senior Liz Bergh said. Many of those are what the district calls “singletons,” meaning only one section is offered. If they are offered at the same time as another single-section class, such as a music course, she said, kids are forced to choose. Often the college transcript-enhancing and money-saving classes win out. Students also often must choose a required class over an elective scheduled at the same time -perhaps taking away from a well-rounded education. The problem has worsened since the district eliminated a period from the day about a decade ago.

“It’s hard to choose required classes over things like band,” said Bergh, who noted that there are multiple sections of Algebra I and other standard classes that the majority of students take.

Denfeld parent Susan Johnson said her daughter was forced to make a difficult choice when a Spanish class she had chosen was offered at the same time as an advanced placement class. At the same time, in another period of the day, she then was forced to take a class she didn’t need or want because that’s all that was offered.

“There’s just not much wiggle room,” Johnson said.

Duluth Superintendent Bill Gronseth, citing reasons for some courses not being offered, said schools often have to spend money where it’s needed most. This year, support was needed for ninth-graders who were struggling academically. At East, he said, another counselor was necessary. Those decisions are made at the school level.

With the improvement in today’s technology, said Lincoln Park Middle School parent Marina Udd, students at Lincoln Park and Denfeld should be able to take classes at the eastern schools via Skype or some other technology.

“It’s an easy fix,” she said.  

Crowded classrooms East senior Keaton Long had no issue getting the classes he wanted, but he describes a gridlocked main staircase at the high school and difficulty getting from class to class in the allotted five minutes.

“It’s very packed,” he said.

Not all of his classes are full, but most are, he said, with extra desks brought in for physics, for example.

“At East, we have a greater variety of classes we can take, but it’s a tradeoff,” he said. “We have a lot of kids in class. … It seems like it gets more and more crowded every year.”

Catherine Long, Keaton’s mom, said her freshman daughter eats lunch in the upper commons area near her locker because of a lack of space in the cafeteria. Catherine Long volunteers in the career center, and has noticed a sign that’s been posted for a couple of years in the office that says shadowing isn’t allowed because of large class sizes. Students are learning lessons, she said.

“Patience and tolerance, it does teach that,” said Long, who teaches at Lake Superior College. “They are witnessing on their own generational level some unfairness for themselves and their friends at Denfeld.”

Gronseth said the student-to-teacher staffing ratio was changed this year - teachers have been hired to lower class sizes - so classroom crowding should be less of a problem at East than it has been in the past.

The transfer policy The district’s transfer policy has been blamed by some for the enrollment disparity between Denfeld and East.

Families can apply for a transfer, and if it’s denied, appeal to a committee. Last year, 99 of the initial transfers districtwide - about 75 percent of the total - were approved. Between the two schools, recent numbers have been fairly low. The number of transfers to East from Denfeld this year is 14, with seven moving from East to Denfeld. Three transfers were denied. Last year 19 students transferred to East with nine going to Denfeld, and the year before 27 went to East and 17 to Denfeld.

But some parents allege that families lie about where a student is living to get into East, suggesting the number of students from the Denfeld boundary area attending East is much higher. Addresses of relatives are used, parents said, and it’s been a practice for years.

“The people who are doing the right thing, who live in the neighborhoods that go to Lincoln and Denfeld, you are penalizing them,” because the imbalance worsens, Udd said.

Denfeld mom Lisa Maciver advocates for changes to the transfer policy. Until that happens, more kids will want to transfer, she said.

“I can look in my neighborhood. The kids haven’t moved,” she said. “They have transferred. To East, Hermantown, Marshall. They live in the same place.”

Gronseth said the district works to verify addresses of students moving between schools by checking paperwork, but acknowledges the process isn’t perfect. The policy is being reviewed for possible changes, and other districts’ models are being researched. Class sizes and enrollments probably will be considered, with possible wait lists or limits set.

Open enrollment numbers - this year, at least - have had little effect on the high schools. Only 30 high school students left the district for another, but 32 more came into the district - with more, in fact, choosing Denfeld than East.

Why the loss?

Many students left the school district during the Red Plan, choosing surrounding school districts, and that was felt at Denfeld. That school, in particular, also saw many students go to the district’s Area Learning Center, or drop out. The 2013 drop-out rate is 4.3 percent, but the status of another 2 percent of students that year is unknown; those students simply stopped attending. Last year’s senior class was much smaller than those of previous years.

A western Duluth stigma contributes to smaller enrollments in some of the schools on that side of the city, Maciver said. New homebuyers want good schools and often - on paper, at least - some of the western schools don’t rank as high as their eastern counterparts, she said. Udd said she has heard that real-estate agents tell people shopping for homes not to look on the western side of the city.

The perception that area real-estate agents steer clients away from the western side of the city isn’t true, said Michelle Peterson, president of the Duluth Area Association of Realtors.

The Internet makes lots of school information available to buyers, she said, so they typically know what neighborhoods they want to live in when they begin looking.

“I can’t tell my people where they want to live,” she said. “People say, ‘I want to live here.’ There are people who would never live east and there are people who would never live west.”

Perpetuating the divide A study has been commissioned by the school district to research birth rates, demographic and real estate trends and where various age groups live. The point is to help change elementary school boundaries for next school year because many schools are over capacity - and therefore are of immediate concern. While district officials have said secondary schools might be part of the conversation, Gronseth said last week any changes to secondary-school boundaries probably will be a few years down the road. It will depend on study results, he said, and decisions will be based on data.

Noting that Denfeld has far fewer students than East, Gronseth said equity is about more than “pure numbers.”

Denfeld, with its higher number of low-income students, receives more funding than East per student. It can use that money for smaller class sizes or other student support, “and in some ways, that’s the model we have,” Gronseth said.

One concern about moving the boundary farther east would be how that might widen even more the low-income and minority population gaps between the schools.

The opportunity gap tends to widen in schools with income and race imbalances, said Amy Bergstrom, assistant professor in the School of Education at the College of St. Scholastica.

“If (students) don’t have the same access to college prep classes or a rich buffet of classes to choose from, that limits their options past high school,” she said, which also has economic ramifications.

If you divide students into groups and provide one with a rich experience and the other -which happens to be mostly low-income and students of color - with one less robust, “you further perpetuate this divide,” said Bergstrom, who studies equity and is also a district parent.

A growing west side With high enrollments at Laura MacArthur and Piedmont elementary schools, it’s clear that more young families are buying homes in the western half of the city, Duluth Mayor Don Ness said.

The city is investing in revitalization efforts along the St. Louis River corridor, and in the West Duluth and Lincoln Park business districts and neighborhoods. The goals are to create healthier neighborhoods and improve parks and recreation, which will draw more young families to the area and bolster western schools, Ness said.

“We are making an investment in environmental learning,” he said, because of the corridor’s existing trails, waterfront and parks. If the schools align programming to the same ideas, Ness said, families drawn to that will choose western Duluth instead of just saying “they need to be in Lakeside because it’s the place to be.”

Ness said he doesn’t believe that boundaries should be changed. Schools with low enrollment should be marketed with a selling point to draw people to them, creating equity by choice rather than force. The idea is similar to a magnet school specializing in, say, music or science. Money could be invested in Denfeld to market it as a school with small class sizes, Ness said, and ensure it had the same offerings as East.

“We are almost leading with the negative, saying it’s not equal,” he said. “But not for every parent. Not for every family. Some families would love to be in a smaller high school that hopefully still provides the same type of programming. … If you make those changes, it will naturally grow.”

Gronseth said he has created a task force to look into such ideas. He has talked with Ness about his ideas out west, and Ness is open to them, Gronseth said, noting boundary changes aren’t the only way to affect the enrollment of a school. When Duluth eliminated its three magnet schools in 2010 - as a part of the district’s desegregation efforts - it was because they weren’t effective toward the goal they were intended to achieve. If they were brought back, Gronseth said, they would be funded differently. He said they, and immersion programs, are attractive to families and are worth exploring.

Going forward Understanding what equity means is important before any decisions are made, School Board member Annie Harala said.

“I heard someone say, you just need to move the boundary for Congdon from 14th Avenue East to 21st Avenue East,” she said. “Someone said ‘those’ kids shouldn’t be in our school. That made me mad. Our tax dollars go to every kid in our district.”

Each school has its own flavor and has much to offer, she said, echoing some of Ness’ niche school ideas. Residents should get involved in the boundary discussion this year and “look for accuracy,” she said, stressing that the issues affect everyone in the community.

Either boundaries at the secondary schools need to be changed or technology needs to be explored, said Skwira-Brown, the Lincoln Park parent, who said it’s important to alter boundaries at the elementary level as well.

“Those changes won’t always be comfortable and won’t always come without some things we’d rather avoid,” he said. “But if our goal - our higher standard - is an equitable student experience, that is something we need to talk about.”

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