Duluth ponders the societal consequences of school closuresby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
The Duluth School Board votes next week on closing and consolidating schools. But some residents worry the plan concentrates students of color and low-income students primarily into one half of the district.
Duluth, Minn. — Duluth's long, narrow shape creates a distinct divide. In the west are the old working-class neighborhoods, once home to factories and a steel mill. The east is primarily residential - some of it rather upscale, like the mansions that line Lake Superior on London Road. Between the two, is the downtown with the Central Hillside neighborhood just above.
In recent years the city's been served by three high schools: one east, one west, one central. But the new plan closes the one in the middle. And that stirs up long held divisions, according to Eileen Zeitz Hudelson.
"Going to two high schools that clearly divide the city into east and west, and promote that division, which is a long-standing division in Duluth, I think is a bad idea," says Hudelson, an instructor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and a former member of the school board.
The line between east and west is 14th Avenue East. Planners say that's the center of the district's student population. But it steers twice as many students of color to the western schools, and about three times as many low-income students, who qualify for free or reduced lunches. That bothers Hudelson.
"I have real problems with the boundaries that were drawn," Hudelson says. "I think it promotes segregation. And I think that's a really serious issue that this district needs to address."
Planners point out there are already economic and racial divides in the Duluth schools. The schools reflect the city's neighborhoods. Under the proposed plan, more students of color or from low-income families would attend schools in the east than they do now. But maybe not yet enough, according to Curt Leitz, a member of the district's Desegregation and Advisory Council.
"What's interesting to me is that the divide isn't necessarily any worse under the new proposal than it already is," Leitz says. "But it's already bad enough. And this seems like a point in history where we have the opportunity to really try to address that and help balance the school system, as opposed to just accept the status quo."
But it's not easy. The district wants to keep elementary school kids in their own neighborhoods, and it wants to keep those kids together as they progress through middle school and then high school. And it wants the high schools the same size. What's proposed is workable, if imperfect, according to George Himango, the district's director of desegregation.
Himango says the eastern side of town will not have an edge on learning.
"Academic performance is not achieved through osmosis," Himango says. "You can't plunk a student of color next to a Caucasian student and assume that you're going to achieve quality."
What's important, he says, is how the district has an impact on students of color, including opportunities to share with other students across the district. The difference in social and racial makeup can be addressed.
"Let's take a look at creating opportunities for inter-racial contact, creating a curriculum across the district that embeds itself in the celebrated diversity of the United States. Let's do that," says Himango. "Let's create activities that enhance the celebration of diversity throughout the district."
But programming doesn't come cheaply. District Superintendent, Dr. Keith Dixon, says a referendum is likely in about a year and a half, to request the money needed to make the school facilities plan work.
Meanwhile, the District School Board might want to move the dividing line from 14th Avenue East. Some long-time community leaders have noted that street was once the de facto red-line. People of color were steered to homes west of that street. It may be the center of the district, but Dixon says it might be an unfortunate choice.
"Whether it's real or perceived, it's interesting that, ironically, the center of town happens to be about where there was this sort of perceived line of demarcation, so to speak," says Dixon. "So, in fact, some board members have said that simply because we've heard that, are there some ways simply to change this a bit, because that isn't what we want to do."
The District Board has left open whether it'll adjust the dividing line Tuesday, when it scheduled to vote on what's called the Red Plan. If approved, the plan comes with a $257 million price tag.
- Morning Edition, 06/14/2007, 6:20 a.m.