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One high school makes fiscal, educational sense

Since publishing our March 16 commentary, "Here's our consolidation plan for Duluth schools: one high school, and costs capped at $95 million," we've heard a chorus of support for an idea whose time has come. There are myriad reasons for Duluth t...

Since publishing our March 16 commentary, "Here's our consolidation plan for Duluth schools: one high school, and costs capped at $95 million," we've heard a chorus of support for an idea whose time has come. There are myriad reasons for Duluth to consider a one-high-school consolidation plan. Beyond sound fiscal and educational considerations, the Duluth School Board has an opportunity to unite Duluth with all 10th- through 12th-grade students attending one state-of-the-art comprehensive high school.

The Duluth school district faces very large annual operational budget deficits now and into the future. If the voters reject the excess levy referendum scheduled for a vote next fall, the district could face annual cuts of $10 million. These cuts would primarily come from raising class sizes, cutting professional staff, and curtailing programs for students. Operating one high school instead of two or three high schools, and consolidating middle and elementary schools, could save enough annually to avoid such draconian cuts to staff and programs.

Enrollment in the Duluth schools has fallen from 26,500 students to 9,500 students. We believe the decline in enrollment may continue beyond 9,500 students. Our reasoning is that high school students have more options for education besides the Duluth public schools. These options include online high schools, open enrollment, home schooling, charter schools, private schools, and post-secondary enrollment. If the enrollment decline continues, it wouldn't be long before citizens would wonder why the district invested all that money in the red plan and why they sold the Central campus, the best site for one high school.

The Central High School site has a number of advantages. There are 77 acres of land that access both Central Entrance and Arlington Road.

The Secondary Vocational Technical Center is located on the Central campus. Central has a very complete outdoor athletic complex including football, soccer, softball/baseball fields and six tennis courts.

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The grade level configuration in the Duluth schools could easily be changed to accommodate one 10th- through 12th-grade high school, two seventh- through ninth-grade middle schools (at Denfeld and East), and nine kindergarten through sixth-grade elementary schools, which could utilize the Woodland and Ordean middle school buildings as elementary schools.

The two top-rated high schools in Minnesota, according to Newsweek magazine, are Hopkins and Edina. Hopkins High School serves 2,100 10th through 12th graders. Edina High School serves 1,700 10th through 12th graders. A single high school in Duluth, serving grades 10 through 12 would have an initial enrollment of about 2,100 students. There are currently two dozen high schools in Minnesota with more than 2,000 students.

In 2003, a group of Duluth school principals proposed a single high school plan for Duluth that converted Central High School to a grade 10 through 12 school, converted Denfeld and East high schools to grades seven through nine middle schools, and consolidated the elementary schools to nine kindergarten through sixth-grade schools. We think that plan was and still is feasible and would cost less than $95 million.

The principals' group advocated an academy model for the single high school. All students would enroll in the core academics of English, math, social studies, science and fitness. Students could then choose to specialize in one of four academiessuch as business management/law, engineering/technology, performing arts, or health sciences/human services.

The academies would offer both conventional courses and internships with local businesses and organizations. The academy model works well in a large comprehensive high school by giving students smaller cohesive groups to identify with and opportunities to meet other like-minded students from across the city. The principals' study left little doubt that one high school would enhance course offerings for all students.

Some parents and students have expressed concern that a large high school could limit student opportunities to participate in athletics.

An examination of Hopkins and Edina athletic offerings indicates a greater variety of varsity sports than exist in Duluth, including wrestling, gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and lacrosse.

Intramural athletic programs are extensive and well staffed to ensure that all students are offered opportunities to participate.

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We agree with the Duluth principals study that one high school would be good for Duluth and would provide increased educational opportunities for students. Students of diverse race and economic backgrounds would be together on one campus and experience an environment more like the world they will encounter after graduating.

A friend suggested we name our plan. When we replied that all the good colors and low numbers had been taken, he suggested calling it the Unity Plan. We like that. Duluth could use a good dose of unity right now.

Tom Boman is a professor emeritus of education at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Mark Myles was a superintendent of Duluth Public Schools and served the district in a number of other capacities from teacher to school principal to district facilities director.

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