Opinions Opinions

Posted on Thu, Jul. 24, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Our View
Embrace one-high-school vision for changing Duluth

Duluth school Superintendent Julio Almanza laid down the gauntlet Tuesday. Either the people of Duluth have to pony up significant new money by voting for a multimillion-dollar operating levy -- or the school district has to close high schools.

Let's face it. Duluth does not have the school-age population and financial resources to sustain three high schools.

Let's face the challenge of creating a new high school system. Let's create a plan for one high school that draws upon the oldest Duluth High School tradition.

Almanza has proposed a five-year transition to one high school. Close one high school next year. Close another within five years. Remodel Central High School or build a new high school for the one-high school system. This is the right direction. The School Board and community should support it.

The fact is, Duluth had one high school until its population reached 90,000. High schools were added because people expected the city would grow to 200,000.

Today, our population is below 90,000 -- as it has been for 20 years. Yet, Duluth continues to support three comprehensive high schools -- as if the city were at its peak population of 106,000 and growing toward 200,000.

We've known for some time that this is unsustainable.

But as a community we've avoided difficult decisions. Instead we've opted to close elementary schools to keep open three high schools. In the past 20 years, we've closed 16 elementary schools. Over that same period, we've lost 4,000 high school students, but still we've kept open three high schools.

Better to keep open our neighborhood and magnet elementary schools -- building on a future in Duluth -- and close high schools, if we want to keep and attract young families to Duluth. Neighborhood and magnet elementary schools provide the small scale that help younger children thrive.

The fact is, high schools are the most expensive schools to operate in any school system. You'd have to close several elementary schools to achieve the savings you could get by closing high schools.

A majority of Duluth school district's principals and program administrators wrote a letter to the school board and Superintendent Julio Almanza several months ago supporting a one-high-school vision:

"Having one campus would serve as a uniting force in Duluth and would also allow us to offer students many more learning options on-site, so that all of our young people have the chance to prepare for the future they choose. One new high school campus would also allow Duluth to maintain a larger number of schools for younger students within the district and still work within the financial resources we will have, as we become a small district."

Let's be creative about how to continue using the Denfeld and East buildings as we move to one high school. Going to one high school does not -- we repeat, does not -- have to mean shuttering Denfeld and East.

A March 2001 "Point of View" column on these pages offers some good suggestions:

A single, centrally located Duluth High School would serve juniors and seniors. The column suggested two possibilities for the other two current high school buildings: Have grades seven and eight at East and grades nine and 10 at Denfeld, keeping all students together. The other would be to create two schools with grades seven through 10. Denfeld, with its beautiful auditorium, could offer specialized performing arts programs.

The beauty of this approach, the column continued, is that "instantly, economic and racial balance issues disappear. School boundaries are permanent. Parents can buy any house they want, without worrying about where school lines may be drawn years down the road."

As discussion about a one-high-school system proceeds, don't get stuck into rigid grade configurations -- kindergarten through fifth-grade elementaries (which have contributed to closing our elementary schools by taking away sixth-graders), sixth- through eighth-grade middle schools, ninth- through 12th-grade high schools. Be creative.

When Duluth had one high school, that one high school was Old Central, a landmark architectural statement and a testament to the city's aspirations for its youth.

A return to one high school could again be a grand statement of educational and community purpose in Duluth.

Let's embrace the idea of a united, all-inclusive, centrally located Duluth High School -- a fitting vision for a community of 90,000 people.

I wrote a reply