Could Duluth's Denfeld High School draw more students if it offered a customized academy-style education, with tracks for things such as fine arts, STEM and health occupations?

Some say a new model is key to making the school more attractive and rebuilding its enrollment. A shared course catalog binds Denfeld and Duluth East High School, in theory giving students at both schools access to the same experiences. But in reality, the fact that there are about 500 fewer students at Denfeld means that doesn't always happen.

Rebranding and reshaping what Denfeld offers could help make it more attractive and marketable, said Tom Tusken, a Denfeld teacher and former administrator who is part of a community group working to create more equity between the two high schools.

"I think we fundamentally need to look different than we do now," he said.

The group - Community-Based School Equity Initiative - came together this winter, determined to address issues such as why middle and high school students living on the east side of town had certain advantages over those on the west, a problem identified years ago that has persisted.

Inequity existed in some ways when the district had three high schools, Tusken said, but the closure of the center-of-the-city Central High School in 2011 showed it much more starkly.

"Because (now) there is a complete east/west divide, geographically, socioeconomically" and in many other ways, he said. "Denfeld staff have been knocking their heads against the wall trying to figure this out."

The $315 million long-range facilities plan, or Red Plan, called for the Denfeld and East to have somewhat equal populations of students, but that hasn't been the case. Part of that is based on where people live, and a desire to not draw a boundary that concentrates poor and minority students in greater numbers at Denfeld. But Denfeld, on the west side of town, has lost students to neighboring schools and districts. It also has a 12 percent dropout rate.

And since the school re-opened in 2012 after renovations, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy has plagued it, as student loss has meant resource loss in some ways.

The school is different from East in that it educates far more students of color, students living in poverty and students receiving special education services.

The community group put together recommendations advancing several ideas meant to give more kids at Denfeld more of what they need or want, pointing to four of them as priorities:

  • Offer more scheduling flexibility at Denfeld for high-level courses, with the district shifting resources to provide another period in the day for each advanced class on-site at Denfeld - classes which East students could take via telepresence.
  • Provide transportation to students who live within two miles of the school, either through Duluth Transit Authority passes or district buses to increase attendance (Only high school students living outside of two miles receive transportation.)
  • Address disproportionate suspension and graduation rates related to poor students and some minority groups through more effective programs and more money and staff training.
  • Rethink how to spend a type of state funding that is intended to help low-income schools, but is spent in large part - legally - to lower class sizes districtwide. Nearly $200,000 of Denfeld's allocation is directed elsewhere, although on average per student, Denfeld receives more money as a whole than East - $5,271 vs. $3,990.

Nearly a dozen issues are brought forward in the group's report, with possible remedies for each, both short- and long-term. Some, such as needing improvements to reading and math interventions and the What I Need advisory period, include keeping what's in place, but making them work better. For other issues, ensuring staff are trained to do what's intended - and then ensuring follow-through - are advised.

Denfeld parent Kevin Skwira-Brown said the feasibility and affordability of some of those possible remedies need to be studied, and the group's offerings aren't intended or designed to be "off the shelf, ready to implement."

Not every issue can be changed or improved in a year, he said, but "there needs to be a sense of hope that things are going to get better. That hope comes with moving forward."

Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the Duluth School Board has asked for information on costs for using some of the ideas and any effects on the district as a whole. Some would be easy to do and some might be difficult, he said.

A meeting will be set this spring to go over information. Short-term, accessibility to advanced classes could be addressed, and improvements to interventions, for example, are already in progress. Efforts to make Denfeld a full-service community school - a way to address student needs - are underway, and the district is looking into offering something new, such as academies, at Denfeld.

Providing DTA passes for kids who live within two miles of school will be examined, but Gronseth noted that's a need for all schools. Those passes could also help kids get to the before-school zero hour classes.

If the district stopped using state "compensatory education" money - given to schools based on percentages of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch - to lower class sizes, that money would need to come from somewhere else in the future, Gronseth said, and class sizes would increase in the short term.

"My responsibility is to keep all students in all schools in mind," he said.

Some group members say an increased voter-approved operating levy could help keep class sizes low so a redirection wouldn't negatively affect other schools.