07-27-2003 - Keep Denfeld, East open but stir one-school debate
Posted on Sun, Jul. 27, 2003
Commentary by TOM BOMAN
Keep Denfeld, East open but stir one-school debate
Duluth once had four public high schools and a population of 120,000 people young enough that a majority of voters had a direct interest in the public schools. Now the city has about 80,000 residents, the majority of the population having no direct interest in the public schools.
Morgan Park High School was closed when the U.S. Steel plant closed down, leaving the far western community without a major employer. Now the Duluth School Board is considering whether it makes good sense to close one or more of the three remaining high schools in an attempt to live with new budget and political realities.
It will not be an easy decision. Duluth is a most unusual city. A sage once remarked that Duluth is 30 miles long, a mile wide and a mile high. As the city came to maturity in the early years of the past century the laboring class of people settled close to where the work was, namely, the waterfront and up the river to the west. The business and professional class tended to settle out along the shores of Lake Superior to the east.
Each end of town had its own unique political base and interests. Designing a school system for Duluth was fairly straightforward in the city's early days. Every little neighborhood got an elementary school. The first high school went in the center of town to keep the west end and east end people happy. As the city population grew, the western neighborhood political forces lobbied for a high school, and soon, Denfeld High School was a reality.
When U.S. Steel Corp. settled Morgan Park as the new steelmaking center, they got their high school, Morgan Park. Eventually the east end of town flexed its political muscles and got a high school, East. And everyone was happy.
In the early '60s, Duluth had a superintendent of schools by the name of L.V. "Bud" Rasmussen, an articulate and thoughtful leader. He often commented that running the Duluth schools was fascinating because it had four very different public high schools. There was a typical suburban high school, East; an inner-city high school, Central; a small-town high school, Morgan Park; and a classic, stable blue-collar high school, Denfeld. He never considered consolidating or coordinating the schools because they were so different from each other. Fortunately, he had the enrollment and finances to keep them all healthy and running.
Times change. The city demographics have shifted with a marked decline in the proportion of youngsters and an increasing proportion of older residents. There has been a move to build on top of the hill. The major retailing center is no longer the downtown but in the Miller Hill area.
There are three contending plans for the Duluth schools for the future. One would maintain the old order by keeping the three high schools, plus do some realigning of grade configuration and close some elementary schools. This plan would keep loyalists to the existing high schools happy but probably not solve budget problems nor provide a new, exciting vision of educational opportunities.
Another plan would pick two high schools to survive, probably one in the east and one in the west: East and Denfeld. This plan would avoid antagonizing the east vs. west advocates and avoid major building costs. It would be expected that the old grads from Central High School will be very upset at the prospect of losing their old alma mater, a group that successfully prevented the School Board from closing Central a number of years ago. The third plan would close all three existing high schools, making everyone unhappy but promising to build a new mega high school that would serves the entire school district.
The mega high school plan proposes to build a new building that incorporates all the newest ideas in educational philosophy and technology. It would have three or four unique schools of 600-800 students within a common campus, a very workable idea and one in place in some of Minnesota's rapidly growing communities around the Twin Cities.
Where might a mega high school be built? Educationally, it requires a very large site with plenty of room for parking and performance facilities. Politically, it has to be in a neutral site. Those requirements almost dictate something on top of the hill, neither east nor west, and where transportation demands can be accommodated.
A new single high school for Duluth probably will cost $44 million or more, depending on infrastructure improvements needed to make the idea work. If the school plan is accompanied by an exciting vision for the future of public education in Duluth, residents might be persuaded to foot the bill. But that will take time, a lot of work and remarkable creativity.
So what to do in the interim? A likely scenario would be to move to the two high school plan and keep East and Denfeld operating while residents debate the merits of the one high school plan and all the grade reconfigurations that are likely to be proposed in the new vision.
Within a year there will be a new mayor for Duluth, a raft of new city councilors and some major new players on the School Board. It should be an exciting time for political and educational junkies to watch the maneuvering and posturing. Hopefully, when the dust settles, whatever happens will be good for the youngsters of Duluth.
TOM BOMAN is a professor in the education department at the University of Minnesota Duluth.