Less than ten years ago, Duluth embarked on a controversial school restructuring plan. I won’t rehash the bitter debate here, but the decision to close Duluth Central High did bring one promise with it: the new, two-school arrangement would help make sure that one Duluth public high school wouldn’t seem to dwarf the other, as Duluth East so often did to Central and Denfeld, both in terms of enrollment and in academic and athletic achievement. Yet here we are in 2015: Duluth East’s enrollment has been climbing steadily higher over the past half-decade, while Denfeld’s has sagged. East now clocks in around 1,500 students, while Denfeld can’t scrape up 900. How on earth did things get so lopsided? I dove into some census data to find out.
First, though, I should start with the things that the census can’t explain in full detail. The first is the poverty rate, which, while imperfect, tends to have very strong implications for how likely kids are to finish school. I calculate the poverty rates at 14.0 percent for East and 21.3 percent for Denfeld, respectively; that’s a pretty substantial difference. Moreover, I suspect the data over-reports actual poverty on the east side due to its large population of college students; for example, the poverty rate for the Hunter’s Park and Hartley areas, which I would have guessed are among the most well-off in the city, is actually over 15 percent, or nearly triple that of neighboring Woodland. Unity High School, the District’s alternative high school option, almost certainly draws in more west side kids, further driving down the numbers. Transience, which is not well-studied, also plays a huge role, with the constant disruption in students’ lives preventing lasting commitments to schools. Simply based on its demographics, Denfeld is going to end up with fewer students than East, even if the lines are drawn to give east and west side schools the same number of students.
Moving the Line
The boundaries, of course, are not even. The current line, which heads up 6th Avenue East and Kenwood Avenue, gives a majority of Duluth’s land area to Denfeld. Even so, East’s attendance area has about 1,000 more K-12-aged kids (6,900 versus 5,900) in the area it draws from. This hardly explains the whole difference, but it certainly explains some of it. As one west-side politician frustrated with the imbalance once told me, just move the line east!
If only it were that easy. When the Red Plan was put into place, 6th Avenue wasn’t the dividing line. It was noticeably further east, at 14th Avenue East, and having it in that rough area would effectively equalize the populations (6,394 in the East area versus 6,427 in Denfeld’s). However, some people quickly noted that 14th Avenue East was the old red-lining boundary in Duluth—that is, the line used to enforce a racial zoning code that prevented minorities from buying houses on the east side. Understandably squeamish about harkening back to that legacy, the District moved the line to 6th Avenue. The neighborhoods between those avenues are among Duluth’s poorest, with poverty rates all in excess of 30 percent; the 6th Avenue line made East more diverse and gave it a greater number of low-income students. While reverting back to a line somewhere in the mid-teen avenues would perhaps be the easiest fix for the enrollment disparity, it would only exacerbate the have-have not dynamic between East and Denfeld, lowering East’s poverty rate to 10.5 percent and raising Denfeld’s to 23.6 percent.
The only alternative line-drawing method to equalize populations would likely have to go north, reaching into Rice Lake Township and perhaps beyond. It’s a bit of a gerrymander that would make for some long bus rides or drives, but it would still make some geographic sense, and has the added benefit of pulling from a fairly wealthy township with a relatively large student population. But exactly for that reason, it might prove less politically possible: hell hath no fury like wealthy members of a township who are threatened with possible contact with other types of people, especially when it comes from the dictates of an urban bureaucracy. This is the planner’s paradox, as they aim for both equity and public participation, and often find that the two are at odds.
The school district might also have incorrectly predicted future population trends. In my digging, I stumbled across a very detailed mid-2000s population projection requested by then-Superintendent Julio Almanza. In typical ISD 709 fashion, it was a total mess: upon receiving it he chose not to share it with anyone because it was “confusing,” which understandably had the School Board feeling a bit insulted, and everyone was left in disagreement and nothing got done. (Some related press clippings are at the end of the PDF.) The researcher expects a loss of over 30 percent of the school-age population in East’s attendance area between 2000 and 2015, while the rest of the city loses maybe 10-15 percent. If this seems baffling, well, it should: my calculations show that Denfeld lost slightly more between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, with both hovering around an 18 percent drop. The narrative does flip some if we use the (somewhat less reliable) 2013 ACS data; East’s decline rate increases a tiny bit to 20 percent, while Denfeld suddenly adds a few potential students thanks to growth in Duluth Heights, and its 2000-2013 decline rate is only 15 percent. Still, one data point that breaks from longtime trends is hardly vindication, and with the reports of overcrowding in east side elementaries, I remain a skeptic that this uptick in the Heights will lead to a sizable shift in high school populations down the road. Whether or not the Keith Dixon administration employed these stats in the making of the Red Plan, they do not appear to be a reliable guide.
I’m not trashing the researchers; their methods are standard and solid, and they hit all the right caveats. The thing they can’t account for is human nature. This includes internal migration trends, and the extent to which the east side remains the home of Duluth cake while the west side retains a Rust Belt stigma. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in school choice, where people flock to the “good” schools and flee the “struggling” ones. The fate of one’s own children is often where the faith of some of the greatest believers in equity goes to die—and, to an extent, I can’t fault anyone for that.
The Weakness of Boundaries
Still, if this is why East is gaining students while Denfeld sheds them, it must be coming from people who physically move; the District’s internal open enrollment numbers show only a very modest net gain for East. Marshall doesn’t seem a likely culprit for imbalance either, given its hefty price tag more easily paid by east side families. Charter schools might explain some elementary disparities, but Harbor City is Duluth’s lone charter high, and it too draws from both sides. Of course, that will change when the new Edison behemoth opens up on Rice Lake Road, most likely furthering the disproportionate whacking of Denfeld’s numbers. If it can make its enrollment projections (and this is no guarantee), it may be as large as Denfeld once the dust has settled.
The real cause of the missing Denfeld students has to be open enrollment out of ISD 709 and into neighboring communities. The only readily available numbers are from 2010, which was probably the top year for bailing on Duluth amid Red Plan upheaval, but they are stark. (I suppose I could ask for newer data, but considering the District’s record on data sharing, I might get it by 2047 if I begged really nicely.) The biggest beneficiary of open enrollment is affluent Hermantown, which is at capacity and building its own new facilities to accommodate more Duluth transplants. They alone gained over 200 Duluthians (grades K-12) in 2010, many of them from Piedmont and Duluth Heights, where some homes are closer to the Hermantown schools than they are to Denfeld. But there’s also open enrollment into Proctor, which is well over half Denfeld’s size despite drawing from an area that has at best one-quarter the population. It goes into Esko, the wealthiest municipality in northern Minnesota (yes, you read that right). And into tiny Wrenshall, practically kept afloat by Duluth flight. There’s a steady drain out of the District and into these neighboring towns, and demographic analysis has serious limits in this era of free school movement. By their nature, open markets create winners and losers; in Duluth’s case, the loser is obvious, and it is up to each person to decide if the gains are worth the costs that will be borne by the losers.
The Red Plan’s Shadow
I suspect Duluth would have lost kids regardless, but it probably didn’t have to be this way, and this hints at what is, ultimately, the most enduring damage of the Red Plan saga. It’s not the price tag; without re-opening the debate over the various plans, Duluth needed a fix, and it wasn’t going to be cheap. That, along with the refusal to put the Red Plan on the ballot, has largely blown over, as the results of recent elections show. It’s not the architecture, much as we amateur critics may complain. It’s not quite the decision to sacrifice Central, that ugly and inefficient box on an isolating piece of prime real estate, though that’s getting closer to the truth. It’s not in an exacerbated east-west divide; East’s shadow over the other high schools has always been long, and moving its boundaries further into the Hillside actually made East more economically diverse than it had been.
The Red Plan’s greatest damage came in the disruption it caused for so many students, fostering just enough chaos to drive many from it for good. The vicious cycle goes from there. It was school restructuring as shock therapy, as it took the axe to neighborhood schools and gave Duluth a bunch of pretty, hulking shells with large attendance areas. (What better exemplar of the trend than the new Lincoln Park, which lords over the west side at the top of its steep hill, nearly inaccessible by foot and drawing from Kenwood to Fon du Lac.) In a laboratory the new lines and divides would have been fine, but the Dixon Administration and its allies failed to account for how their drastic plan would disrupt families’ incentives. The old order may not have been sustainable, but the rollout of the new one was poor, especially on the west side, where students were jostled from Denfeld to Central and back to Denfeld to accommodate construction. But even now that the dust has settled, East has added students in recent years, while Denfeld dwindles. The damage has been done.
Still, the Red Plan happened, and it’s done now. Readers of my past ISD 709 stuff will know that there’s nothing I hate more than continued belaboring of that old, stupid argument. Duluth needs to hope that the surge was temporary, and not the start of a snowball rolling down a west side ridge. But more than hope, it needs action. There have been baby steps, from some of the events at Lincoln Park to the intense focus on Laura MacArthur. Perhaps if more data were readily available, it would help us amateur students of ISD 709 and lift the perceived veil of secrecy deployed by the District. Ideas like exit interviews and further studies get tossed around at Board meetings in the rare moments that people behave like adults, but those moments are frustratingly rare, and usually buried behind ledes about the dumb things people are yelling at one another. I’m sorry to say that I’m guilty of perpetuating that, and would love to see other people who cover the local education scene focus on what really matters instead of the ongoing personal battles. I’m also not sure that either of those would help; while exit interviews wouldn’t hurt, I don’t think the reasons behind departure are any great secret for anyone with their ears to the ground, and the District definitely shouldn’t waste money on consultants when a lazy grad student can bang out an analysis like this in a couple of days.
Even if the recent uptick in school-aged kids on the west side is a blip on the radar, its long-term prospects are probably the best they’ve been in a quarter-century. Duluth is shaking off its long era of decline and stagnation, and with an active focus on west side development and some large chunks of undeveloped land, there’s good reason to suspect the school-age population on the west side will grow in the coming years. The question is, in an era of high-volume student movement that is unlikely to change, can the west side schools stem the flow outward into alternative destinations? A bit more leadership from the top would obviously help, and there are certainly opportunities to better connect with the opportunity and raise test scores. There are no excuses for the District not doing everything it can.
Still, there are only so many top-down things the District can do. Fundamentally, it comes down to parents believing in Denfeld and investing themselves in a school that, traditionally, has overcome demographic destiny and built a solid community. If that goes, the school will fail. This is hardly a brilliant policy prescription, but I have some faith in it, and I think it’s the only one that can counteract the existing incentives. The solution must come from within. Otherwise, the steady losses will continue, the vicious cycle will feed on itself, and those who have the means to get out will do so. It would be a loss for the west side, a loss for any sort of belief in public education, and one could only pity the kids left behind.