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Duluth charter eyes middle school expansion

Harbor City International School wants to serve grades 6-12 as soon as next school year, but leaders there are considering moving away from the city’s downtown.

Tim Tydlacka, Executive Director at Harbor City International School in Duluth
Tim Tydlacka, executive director at Harbor City International School in Duluth, speaks while sitting in the cafeteria inside the school during an interview Friday, Aug. 26.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Harbor City International School downtown wants to expand and move uphill.

Leaders at the charter high school, based in an office building on Michigan Street since it was founded 2002, want to expand into grades 6-8 by fall 2023.

The Harbor City International School exterior sign
Harbor City International School is located at 332 W. Michigan St., Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

“We want to be able to develop our academic, music, art programs and sports,” Tim Tydlacka, the school’s executive director, said Friday, Aug. 26. “It’s hard to do that when we get our students in ninth grade coming from all over the place. We don’t have any control of where they come from or what their experiences have been before they got here, so we want to be able to have those years to develop the students so that we can grow our programs.”

Charter schools are publicly funded and are governed by the same state transparency laws as traditional school districts. The Minnesota Department of Education signed off on the expansion in January, and Volunteers of America, which is the charter’s legally required “authorizer,” did the same in October 2021.

But Tydlacka said school leaders are still looking for a place to put the middle school they envision. Charter officials are thinking of a place that’s still centrally located but, perhaps, farther up the hill and out of the city’s downtown.

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“We don’t think that the downtown would be the best place for middle school-aged students because of how things are trending,” Tydlacka said Thursday, adding that he didn’t know of a “polite” way to phrase it. “We’re seeing an increase of vagrants, homeless people, people on drugs. ... And some of our students don’t feel safe. Middle school kids especially, parents aren’t going to like that.”

Harbor City International School in Duluth
Harbor City International School in downtown Duluth hopes to add a middle school.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Tydlacka said that leasing a new space would be the easiest, but building a new one might ultimately make the most sense. Minnesota charter schools can’t own property outright, but many buy and own their school sites through an affiliated nonprofit or similar organization. Harbor City officials are working to establish a nonprofit.

Wherever they ultimately choose, Tydlacka said school leaders want to eventually move the high school there, too. The charter’s lease for its downtown digs expires in summer 2027.

Harbor City staff told state administrators last winter they planned to expand into the lower levels of the building in which they’re already leasing space, but Tydlacka told the News Tribune on Thursday that the $2 million estimated cost to renovate the ground floor was too steep.

School leaders told education department administrators that they believe the expansion would meet a growing need in the Duluth community.

Words painted on a wall and door in a cafeteria
A summary created by students of Harbor City International School is painted on a wall and over a door in the cafeteria.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

“The high school program receives regular phone calls and emails requesting that the high school expand to include a middle school program,” Harbor City staff claimed in an application they filed with state education administrators. “It is reported by the school’s operation team that these phone calls have been a consistent message from the community over the last several years.”

A survey of 74 Harbor City parents conducted in 2019 indicates most of them would still be interested in enrolling if the school was in a different location and would have been interested in enrolling their student there in middle school if it had been an option.

Art class entrance at Harbor City International School
A classroom used for art connects to the cafeteria at Harbor City International School in Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

In their application to the school’s authorizer, Volunteers of America, Harbor City officials also claimed theirs is the only centrally located public school in Duluth. Duluth Public Schools’ “Red” facilities plan consolidated its footprint to one high school and one middle school apiece in the city’s eastern and western sides. Myers-Wilkins Elementary is relatively close to the charter, but it doesn’t serve middle or high school grades.

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Tim Tydlacka, Executive Director at Harbor City International School in Duluth.
Tim Tydlacka, executive director at Harbor City International School in Duluth, is shown during an interview in the cafeteria Friday, Aug. 26.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

School leaders told state regulators that demand will “easily” enable them to add two sections of students in each middle school grade. They estimated in their application to the education department that the three new grades will grow the school’s enrollment from 220 to 370 students.

Tydlacka noted that Harbor City isn’t restricted by any attendance areas, which means students can head there from anywhere.

Last school year, Harbor City had 196 students enrolled, according to state education data. Tydlacka said the school starts with 220 students, then loses some to post-secondary education opportunities or more run-of-the-mill attrition.

Social Studies classroom at Harbor City International School in Duluth.
The classroom used for social studies at Harbor City International School in Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Officials at the charter initially hoped to expand this fall, and that’s what they told staff at the state and at their authorizer, but Tydlacka said that state approval for the expansion, which was granted Jan. 5, didn’t leave enough logistical room for the school to expand this year.

If or when the expansion comes to pass, Tydlacka said he expects Harbor City would ultimately reach an equilibrium of about 500 students: 300 or so middle schoolers and 200 high schoolers.

The number of charters that, like Harbor City, have submitted a "supplemental affidavit" to the state to expand, has shrunk from 17 in the 2017-18 school year to eight last school year.

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Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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