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Parents make case for Grant, Chester

Two community input meetings held last week produced strong convictions on why Chester Elementary Lab School and Grant Magnet Elementary School should be saved.

Two community input meetings held last week produced strong convictions on why Chester Elementary Lab School and Grant Magnet Elementary School should be saved.

Each meeting, held Monday night at Grant and Wednesday at Chester, attracted approximately 100 parents and teachers who brainstormed lists of what makes their school special.

School board members made appearances, as well, to talk with parents and observe the process.

"I don't know that it will make a difference, but I do know that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. We have to hear all the arguments," said school board member Harry Welty. "This may have an effect on determining the view of the school board, and I think the school board is a little unsettled about it right now."

The school board is faced with tough decisions on how to offset a budget deficit caused by less-than-expected state funding, declining enrollment and increased expenses. Closing Grant or Chester would eliminate the cost of maintaining a building, approximately $250,000.

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The format of the meetings was derived from the Community Planning Project, held last October. Parents and teachers formed groups ranging from six to 10 participants. Employees of the school district acted as facilitators for each group and recorded ideas on a flip board.

Two hours later, each group identified the top two reasons why their school should remain open. The information will be compiled and presented to the school board.

Welty said the meetings will give the school board some clarity about what the community feels is most valuable about Grant and Chester. He also said that he is against closing Grant School.

"I am kind of constitutionally inclined, like most Americans, to root for the underdog," Welty said. "I believe that this school is extremely important to this community. ... This is really the impoverished community in Duluth, and if we are serious about providing children equal opportunities, we have to be very reluctant about taking this school away from the community."

School board member Gary Krause said elementary schools are vital to providing an educational foundation in the district.

"I think it's a really big mistake to close elementary schools," Krause said.

Parents identified cultural diversity and a safe, stable learning environment as the top reasons for saving Grant, a language magnet school with the highest percentage of minority students. It also has the highest number of students participating in the reduced and free lunch program.

Carolyn Ernest, a parent of two children attending Grant and the school's PTA president, said Grant has taught her children how to look past racial and socioeconomic barriers.

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"Grant has taught my kids how to accept people for who they are. Grant has made my children very strong," she said.

Parents also listed the Grant Reading Program as an incentive to keep the school open. In addition, parents said the school acts as a year-round community center.

At Chester, academic excellence, dedicated teachers and students' ability to walk to school, reducing the need for transportation, were high on the list. Highest value, however, was placed on the school's partnership with UMD, which provides access to UMD facilities, technology and student teaching.

"It's huge to me to have a positive role model in a college student," said John Foucault, who has three children in the school district with one attending Chester.

Foucault also said the meetings fail to produce direct results.

"What we're doing is creating an essay contest between Grant and Chester. We did this last October," Foucault said. "Why aren't we making financial and academic decisions? Which one makes the most financial sense to keep open?"

Closure recommendations will be made to the Education Committee on Oct. 8, and the School Board is scheduled to make a decision in December.

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