At the risk of rekindling a bitter but long-settled debate, what if Duluth had just one high school? Could it work? Would it help to unify our city and public-school system? Doesn’t the current configuration of two high schools, one in eastern Duluth and one in western Duluth, only perpetuate and reinforce a divide, east from west and haves from have-nots?
We raise these questions now only because school district Chief Financial Officer Cathy Erickson acknowledged in a Feb. 5 interview with the News Tribune Editorial Board that a single-high school setup has been talked about by Duluth district administrators.
“Those words and that exact proposal has been discussed in different layers at the district,” Erickson said during an exchange about the fates of Historic Old Central downtown and the closed-since-2011 Central High School site on top of the hill, both of which are currently up for sale. Her comments came after we asked about possibly going to a single high school, perhaps with two campuses, one for ninth and 10th grades and the other for 11th and 12th.
“Transportation is one of the key elements because of the uniqueness of this district,” Erickson said. “We really would have to think through what that would look like because we literally would be running double routes to get the kids physically from (one) part of the city over to (the other) part of the city. We already have transportation challenges. ...
“But there’s a lot to be said for what (a single-high school scenario) could do in creating opportunities on the educational side. And, I think, you know, a part of the strategic plan for the School Board is to really think through that piece of it, which might not be today or two or three years from now but maybe in five or six years.”
Actually, the Duluth district right now has an administration and an elected School Board ideal for taking up a dramatic and certainly controversial proposal, according to School Board Chairwoman Jill Lofald. School Board members, she said, all of them in just their first or second terms in office, work well together and share a willingness to think in bold ways about the future.
“Visioning about two campuses or one high school, I think those are all conversations that we’re interested in seeing where we can go with it,” Lofald, a retired Denfeld teacher, told editorial board members. “I’m excited about having those conversations and about visioning. …
“The board is willing to get out there and talk about one campus or talk about split (campuses) or talk about offering STEM at this building and something else at this building,” she said. “Maybe we have to start envisioning those kinds of ideas, and I know this board is interested in those kinds of conversations. We need the support of people who say, ‘Go out and envision it.’”
At least one Minnesota school district has undergone such visioning: White Bear Lake, north of St. Paul, in 1983, under the weight of budget challenges and declining enrollment, converted its two high schools into a single high school with two campuses. One of its existing high school buildings was designated for ninth and 10th grades and the other for 11th and 12th.
White Bear Lake’s story ought to sound familiar to Duluthians — and may offer us some insights.
“One of the challenges of having two high schools in our community (prior to 1983) was that it felt very divisive in the community. People who were students and community members in the ’70s talked about the north side of town and the south side of town, the haves and the have-nots,” White Bear Lake Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Tim Wald said last week in a phone interview with the News Tribune Opinion page. “The south side of town at that time was new construction, mostly 1960s and ’70s ramblers. But it was a lot of 3M families that were building them, so it was kind of an upwardly mobile side of the town. And the north side of town was old, classic White Bear. … For the most part, it was working class. That created kind of this division of haves on the south side of town and the have-nots on the north side of town.
“People were eager to get rid of having two high schools. They saw value in it,” Wald continued. “So unifying the high school, but in a split campus, solved that problem.”
It didn’t solve all problems, however.
“From a student experience, I would say it hasn’t been ideal,” said Wald. “Having a building of ninth and 10th graders is not an ideal situation. Without having the mentors of the 11th and 12th graders there, it creates a climate in that building that needs to be a little more controlled, a little more locked down. And then our 11th- and 12th-grade building is the opposite. It has a little bit of a feel of a junior college. … I would say it wasn’t an ideal situation for us.”
The split campus wasn’t intended to be forever, Wald said, and last fall 57.6% of White Bear Lake school district voters approved a $326 million referendum to convert the 9th- and 10th-grade building into a high school for all grades, convert the 11th- and 12th-grade building into a middle school, and make other facilities improvements.
“We’ll be one high school centrally located in the district … for 3,000 students. There was a lot of support for that,” Wald said. “People understood the need for unifying our high school and for just making improvements. We have increasing enrollment again and needed improvements across the district.”
Duluth has had similar deliberations. For some, the debate has never ended, not even after the Red Plan was picked in 2007 over a Blue Plan that called for one high school at the Central site on top of the hill and over a White Plan that proposed two high schools at Ordean and in a new building to replace Denfeld.
It’s more than a little bit curious, isn’t it, that reconfiguring Duluth’s high school is still being tossed around in the halls of central administration? The same issues that rejected a single high school for the entire city at the Central site a decade ago surely remain: among them the above-mentioned busing and transportation challenges; the reality that there’d be fewer varsity-level sports teams, band and music programs, and other opportunities; and the loss of generations of school identity. Can we let go of the Hunters? Or Duluth East hockey? Even if it means something new and unifying?
Should we talk about it? Do we dare rekindle a bitter, long-settled debate?