Tag Archives: woodland

Drawing the Lines

27 Jan

The Duluth school district, which has not changed school boundaries since the completion of its major school restructuring Red Plan a decade ago, has embarked on an effort to redraw boundaries. While ostensibly an effort to re-balance enrollments between some schools that are overcrowded and some that are underutilized, it has also invited some serious, difficult discussion about socioeconomic inequities and Duluth’s east-west divide. It also comes at a distinct point in time, as we have a superintendent on his way out the door and the most heterodox school board in recent memory. For professional reasons, I will not comment on the decision-making process or the work of the boundary-drawing consultant, Cooperative Strategies; this post look only at what they have produced and its implications for the future of Duluth’s schools and neighborhoods. (The two are, after all, deeply intertwined.)

At this stage, Cooperative Strategies has developed three scenarios for public consumption, though the firm and district have also noted that none of them are necessarily the final plan. The plans don’t do much to change the socioeconomic composition of any elementary schools, mostly because it is very, very hard to do so given Duluth’s orientation along a lakeshore and the location of its most affluent neighborhoods. The changes largely hinge on two considerations: the fate of Lowell Elementary and the question of where to draw the line between east and west side middle and high schools.

First, the Lowell question: Lowell has become home to the district’s two growing language immersion programs in Spanish and Ojibwe and no longer pulls many students from nearby neighborhoods. Scenario 1 turns it entirely into a language magnet and sends its remaining neighborhood students to either Homecroft or Piedmont or Myers-Wilkins; Scenario 3 keeps the language programs but also retains a few neighborhood students, and Scenario 2 splits the difference and moves the Ojibwe program to Stowe while leaving Spanish at Lowell. Scenario 3 has the added wrinkle of splitting the Lowell elementary population between the two middle and high schools, a situation the other scenarios avoid. The Lowell scenarios invite questions over the future of where Duluth Heights and Kenwood (and even bits of Hunters Park and Chester Park) fit into the picture and where to house the language programs. The former one is a complicated one that I won’t delve into here, and I’d need data on where the participating students come from to have an opinion on the latter.

Second, and more controversial, is the middle and high school boundary. Right now, enrollments are significantly higher in the east side schools than those on the west, a result of a decision made in the Red Plan days that somewhat balanced socioeconomics. All three proposed plans now seek to equalize enrollments. Scenario 2 is effectively what the Red Plan could have been with more equal overall enrollments: all Myers-Wilkins students (who currently split between east and west) head west, all Homecroft kids (now including the rural bits that currently feed into Lowell) head east, and the socioeconomic split becomes slightly more pronounced than it currently is. Scenarios 1 and 3 take a step toward equalizing socioeconomics by sending Homecroft kids, including the entirety of the Woodland neighborhood, west, while sending all of Myers-Wilkins to the east. The potential Woodland shift has, predictably, been the most explosive piece of the proposals.

Equity, Equality, and Outcomes

The question of the different demographics in schools sparks a debate about equity and equality, two words that get thrown around a lot in school boundary debates but mean very different things. The easiest way to sum up the difference: equality gives people the same resources regardless of where they all, while equity recognizes inherent differences in where people start and tries to balance them by giving more to those who need more, and (potentially) less to those who start with more. The recent debate about compensatory education dollars doled out by the state to help correct differences between socioeconomic groups, which had previously been divided equally among schools (the same amount per pupil per school) but are now divided more equitably by school (higher amounts to schools with more students are in disadvantaged groups and lower amounts to schools with less) is a good illustration of this divide.

In graduate school, I took a class from Myron Orfield, one of the foremost scholarly proponents of court-ordered integration in public schools. Predictably, Orfield has his share of critics from the right, who question things like anti-segregation busing or creative line drawing in the name of equality as overwrought social engineering. By the time I was in his classroom, however, the most vocal of Orfield’s opponents were coming from the left, and they usually framed their beef in a racial lens. These critics questioned whether mixing people together in the name of integration was a good in and of itself, and argued that shipping kids of color to more white schools in the belief that exposure to kids at such schools would somehow lift their performance was actually rather insulting to students of color. Instead, these critics argue, districts should invest more resources in neighborhood schools that acknowledge and lift up the culture of the people of color. In oversimplified terms, Orfield was a proponent for equality; his new critics wanted equity.

There’s a key difference in the Duluth proposals: by sending Woodland kids on a bus journey across the city to Lincoln Park and Denfeld, ISD 709 wouldn’t be busing kids from low-income families to more affluent schools; it would be doing the reverse. Several people in my circles who I’d generally describe as relatively well-off liberals really like this: they recognize their kids enjoy advantages that won’t fade away if they go to Lincoln Park instead of Ordean East, and they want to send them to mixed schools that reflect the general makeup of the country (or, at least, the area) that they will encounter when they complete their K-12 educations. The loud, angry reactions from Woodland were certainly predictable, though, as were the more practical concerns about logistics and drive times. As the Star Tribune pithily noted, the one thing the attendees at a workshop at Duluth East could agree on was that they didn’t like any of the options.

Fundamentally, these debates run directly along the most pronounced fissures in American society and asks a profound question: can an increasingly diverse school district in an increasingly economically divided metro area find some way to draw lines to mend the fences? Without launching into a discourse on Robert Putnam’s findings on diversity and social trust or the various competing contact and conflict theories of diverse societies, I’ll just say this: diversity, whether racial or socioeconomic, is complicated. And it should be if we acknowledge the full range of human possibility, and that complication deserves respect. In cases like this, I think it’s helpful to strip away the overarching theory for a moment and look at the incentives that changes might create.

What Incentives Do Boundaries Create?

School boundaries are, of course, one tool that communities can control that can shape their divides. But is drawing lines in ways that aim toward balance the best way to achieve that? (When court-ordered across a metropolitan area Orfield’s evidence would say yes, but that’s not what we’re talking about here: people have a lot of other choices.) And is there merit in working to have a critical mass of kids from certain backgrounds in the same place so that they can build a community and so that it becomes easier to deliver any additional support they may need? (If so, what exactly is this “group” we’re talking about?) For that matter, how would the various scenarios affect things such as compensatory education dollars? Redrawing boundaries could reshape the district in myriad ways.

If I sound more cautionary about district-driven integration than one might assume given some of my past writings, part of the reason has to be lived experience: when the Red Plan went into place, it too sought to equalize elementary school enrollments, but trends have not gone the way its architects expected. Some of this is only natural; it’s hard to predict the future, and as many in and around the district have noted, boundaries are something schools should revisit periodically.

But Duluth’s trends over the past ten years were not particularly hard to foresee. The two most affluent elementary schools, riding their reputation, became overcrowded; many of the lowest-income schools, meanwhile, bled kids. I’d need access to more data to say whether this is a product of open enrollment out of the district on the west side or families with kids consciously choosing to live in Congdon or Lakeside—most likely it’s some combination of the two—but it’s a pretty obvious trend. People will vote with their feet no matter where the lines are drawn. The question, then, is how individual schools can act in ways that attract students instead of pushing them out.

I don’t think this observation necessarily has obvious implications. Would Scenario 1 or 3 lead Woodland families to bail on the district, either by enrolling elsewhere or chopping Woodland of the list of neighborhoods they consider? It’s a very real possibility. Or do enough stay put and thereby create positive feedback loops into the western schools, thereby strengthening them (assuming one believes they actually need to be “strengthened”) and leading fewer families to bail out into Hermantown or Wrenshall or private or charter schools? We have a decade worth of data on those enrollment trends from other neighborhoods post-Red Plan to inform forecasts of what might happen here. Whichever option the district chooses, it needs to rely on more than a wishful belief in good intentions.

Fear for the Future

The questions surrounding the Woodland debate feed into a broader trend I observe so often now, whether in school choice or in any number of realms, from youth athletics to friend circles, that affect children’s futures. The logic of late capitalism has led child management for positive outcomes to become a second job, and parents will spend as much of their resources as they can to seek what they believe to be better. I don’t doubt that this has always been true to some extent, just as Duluth has always been divided between east and west, but it seems so much more pronounced now: there is a fundamental panic that things might go wrong, the product of a precarious society where even the well-off do not feel comfortable in their stations. Some west side parents feel forced to defend their choice to send their kids to the neighborhood schools as if it were a risky proposition.

This precarious world is a product of a socioeconomic climate where parents are scared their kids won’t be able to match or exceed their parents’ living standards. In an environment filled with choice, people panic that if they do not make the right choice, they may be setting their children up for failure. They may or may not be right, but perception is reality, and the need to choose correctly creates self-reinforcing loops. In this environment, the typical parent who does not live diversity and socioeconomic theory (and even a healthy number who do) will make the choices that most minimize risk of the concerns they have. They will, once again, vote with their feet.

Part of me wants to roll my eyes at this endless push. On a certain level, kids will be fine; unless it is a truly chaotic environment where no learning can take place, the evidence is pretty clear that factors beyond schools play much bigger roles in kids’ prospects than what goes on in the building itself. In my volunteer role as a college admissions interviewer for my alma mater, I’ve seen no evidence that talented kids with good support networks can’t make it in to the Georgetowns of the world, no matter where in the Duluth area they go to high school. But can I pretend that some of these considerations aren’t present as I decide which neighborhoods to focus on when I buy a house in this city sometime this year? No, I can’t.

School boundary discussions are wicked problems with no easy solutions, perhaps because we can’t quite agree on the question. Even the most committed, well-meaning believers in an integrated society struggle with where to draw lines, literal and figurative, for their own children. To that end, maybe it’s best that we pause and remember what lines cannot do: they cannot reverse people’s opinions on social and economic divides; they cannot make well-off kids dumber or turn students from hopelessly broken homes into college-bound scholars. Maybe that can offer some reassurance to both those in panic over potential changes and the full-throated believers in the transformative power of integration. Still, those who ultimately draw the lines have the task of managing the process with care and understanding for all of the people—and through them, the very fabric of a community—their decisions affect. May they choose well.

Living the Cakeater Life

25 Jan

No, this isn’t a post about hockey; it’s about the future of one half of a city. The west side of Duluth has gotten a lot of deserved attention in politics and in the press in recent years. Rarely, however, do we hear much about the east side as a whole, except as a foil when comparing trends between the two ends of the city. This post will take some time to think about the area where I grew up, and plot out its future.

This isn’t some cry for attention or investment; some fairly substantial development (by Duluth standards) is happening naturally on the east side, and not much screams for immediate intervention. There’s no real cohesive east side identity like there is with the west, except perhaps a relationship to Duluth East High School, though it draws from areas beyond the city limits and its alumni scatter far more than Denfeld’s. Sure, there a few scions of old money families who carry on the tradition of that old east side cakeater stereotype, but while they may be large in influence, they’re relatively few in number. (Sidenote for the uninitiated: the term “cakeater” is indeed a Marie Antoinette allusion used to denigrate the spoiled rich kids, and achieved immortality thanks to the Mighty Ducks movies. Edina is home to the original cakeaters, but it’s long been thrown at the east side of Duluth, too.)

This post came to my mind when I observed to a friend, half surprising myself as I did so, that I might well spend the rest of my life within a mile or two of where I live now. I’m probably going to be an east side lifer, and while I’m a big believer in roots and tradition and so on, the ties go beyond a lingering loyalty to the streets I ran while growing up. I’m a sucker for historic homes. I like having the easy access to transportation and cultural amenities that come with living in a city, but I also like to have yards and green space. I like being on a hill, though not necessarily on a slope that renders the yard difficult to use. I want to be around people who share my  general ethos while at the same time not cutting myself off from those who are not like me. I’m loyal to the east side’s public schools, which I think provide as desirable a blend of high-achieving culture and exposure to reality as one is likely to find anywhere out there; I don’t know what they’ll look like in this balkanizing education world by the time I have kids to send to them, but I’d at least like to preserve that option. The St. Louis River has much to recommend it, but I’ve grown up looking at that lake, and I want to continue to have views of that lake.

My main aim in doing this, though, is to make sure we don’t sink solely into a binary east-west way of thinking for all political discussion and reporting about issues in Duluth. I’ve certainly picked on that divide before; it’s real, and I’ll likely do it again. But it isn’t the only way of looking at things, and it runs the risk of ignoring other views that might be just as valuable.

Part and parcel with this is the danger of thinking of Duluth alone, or as if the goal of balancing east and west must be the sole goal. Less than half of the people living within thirty miles of downtown Duluth live within its city limits, and any solution to its various issues needs to consider the whole ecosystem. That requires both regional thinking, with an acknowledgment that noble measures in the name of balance could create perverse incentives for spillover or even flight into neighboring communities, and local thinking, with plans for specific neighborhoods instead of lumping entire sides of the city under one umbrella.

The east side’s less defined identity may have something to do with the sheer variety that exists between 6th Avenue East and the Lester River. While the west side certainly has its variants as well, it doesn’t have quite as many dimensions as the east side. I’ve divided it into four areas, which I’ll summarize quickly with some essential information, then offer up my thoughts on where they should go in the coming years.

Congdon/Hunters Park

Population: 7,471 | Median Income: $96,860

Elementary School: Congdon | Youth Rinks: Congdon, Glen Avon

We’ll start in the heart of the east side. Congdon is the source of the old stereotype, and it is indeed a neighborhood placid streets and beautiful old homes, albeit with some shifts in the largest of houses that no longer serve as plausible single-family abodes. The city has done a reasonably good job of allowing for creative uses (bed and breakfasts, granny flats, a few apartments), though I think it has been excessively regulatory when it comes to things like AirBnB. (Please, please don’t do the same thing to Uber, City Council friends.)

This is the wealthiest patch of northern Minnesota, and that won’t change anytime soon. In a different place I might argue for less concentration of wealth, but in Duluth and at this time, I will defend letting Congdon be Congdon. Its roots run deep, historical deference preserves part of the city’s character, and it’s not so large that it can be an isolated enclave. (Congdon Elementary actually has more kids in poverty than Lester Park, as it draws from some neighborhoods further west.) It’s worth having a showpiece neighborhood, and also an aspirational one.

This isn’t to say there isn’t room for improvement, and I think the city is particularly primed to cash in on the potential of some of the east side’s commercial corridors. There’s money to be spent in this area, and I expect many east siders from Congdon and beyond would welcome an excuse to do their shopping nearby instead of trekking up to the mall area. As I’ve written before, there’s so much room for improvement along London Road, and a chance to make it an actual destination instead of a bland suburban strip of medical offices and fast food. The new infusions of life with developments like Endi and BlueStone are great signs, as they offer convenient, accessible commercial options and housing for certain stages of life that don’t always get much attention. It’s no coincidence this is happening on the edges of Congdon, and it adds some healthy fresh life to the area.

Lakeside/Lester Park

Population: 9,374 | Median Income: $68,449

Elementary School: Lester Park | Youth Rink: Portman


Population: 9,448 | Median Income: $61,120

Elementary Schools: Homecroft, Lowell | Youth Rink: Woodland

Next, there are the Woodland and Lakeside, old streetcar suburbs that I would argue are, by and large, exemplary neighborhoods. While they are wealthier than most of the rest of the area, they are hardly homes to lots of pretention. There’s variety, too: little downtowns with business districts, connections to both big parks and the rest of the city; some large lakefront or ridgetop homes for the wealthy and some naturally occurring affordable housing for the poor, comfortable homes for families and smaller ranches or ramblers for those in the starter-home market or the mobility-impaired. They both have neighborhood schools (though Lakeside’s is better integrated into the neighborhood), and even their own Catholic schools (though the diocese appears hell-bent on creating its very own little Red Plan and closing one of them). I grew up in Lakeside, and found it to be an excellent place to spend a childhood, with plenty of room to run free and a very healthy overall environment.

These neighborhoods have enough in common that I put them together here, but they’re not identical; there are no lakefront properties in Woodland, and the college students in the Kenwood area drag down the median income up there. Maintaining the health shouldn’t be overly difficult, and simply involves keeping the housing stock fresh and gradually phasing in new stuff so it doesn’t age at a uniform rate. It sounds like some renewed emphasis on neighborhood downtowns will worm its way into the city’s new comprehensive plan, which would be a nice boost for these areas that are doing alright, but do have a few noticeable vacancies.

Also, for the curious: Hermantown’s demographics are very similar to Lakeside’s.

Chester Park/UMD

Population: 7,073 | Median Income: $40,594

Elementary School: Congdon | Youth Rinks: Congdon, Glen Avon

Duluth is a college town, and while a bunch of students scatter across the Hillside, Kenwood, and Duluth Heights, this is the big concentration. For an area including a decent-sized university, that’s actually a reasonably high median income. (The area around the University of Minnesota campus, for example, looks nearly as poor on a median income map as neighboring, poverty-stricken Cedar-Riverside; this gives me another opportunity to grumble about how the Census counts college students.) This goes to show the curious mix within Chester Park, and how quickly areas east of 21st Avenue go from apartments to very large and expensive homes.

Good things have been happening in this area lately. Development of nice new apartment buildings and an actual businesses for college students to patronize (perhaps even—gasp—by foot!) has brought the area around campus out of the Stone Age. Continued efforts to make the universities more walkable self-contained will improve town-gown relations and improve the student experience. In all parts of the city, I’d support aggressive redevelopment of aged or declining housing stock; there’s a lot of crap out there, and I think this is the area where clearing some of that out and throwing up newer, better-planned stuff is least controversial for everyone. More apartments would get rid of some of these clown car homes-turned-apartments, could ease the parking problem with intelligent construction of lots or garages, and likely make upkeep easier.

East Hillside/East End

Population: 7,512 | Median Income: $25,499

Elementary Schools: Congdon, Myers-Wilkins | Youth Rink: Congdon

Then there’s the part of the east side that isn’t anyone’s idea of a den of cakeaters. Its borders aren’t rigid; I’ve written about the melting pot in my own Endion neighborhood, which wedges in between Congdon and Chester Creek, before. As with much of the west side, the elevation divide maps on to the income divide, and the housing stock gets progressively better as one goes up the hill. (In calculating the numbers, I chose not to include the awkward census tract that includes some stuff by upper Chester Creek, upper downtown, and that neighborhood above Skyline around Summit School; if I had, it would pull the median income up nearly $10,000.) Here, apartment buildings mix in with rowhouses and bigger homes that have seen better days, many now subdivided into apartments themselves. It includes the rather suburbanized Plaza shopping district, a little more scattered commercial activity than in the other neighborhoods, and one of the two large medical campuses in town.

Here, the housing issue is more complicated: Duluth needs affordable housing, and Duluth also gains nothing from people living like sardines in rotting or collapsing pieces of junk. Hopefully the city’s newly announced plans to step up code enforcement can lead to cooperative solutions for everyone. If not, call in the wrecking ball for anything vacant, and set up a pathway for residents into safe housing that is up to code. There is some prime real estate in this area, and the dynamics of the local economy are such that I don’t think there’s any serious threat of displacement if the city does move to clear out the worst of it. There just isn’t enough money out there to cause a spate of teardowns followed by McMansion construction. Some selective clean-up, on the other hand, could improve a tight housing market and re-invigorate a neighborhood that too often feels on the shabby side.

*     *    *

Those are just my thoughts, though, and perhaps the start of a conversation or two. Above all, my goal here is to acknowledge the complexity of the east side, and to get some thoughts moving on where its various parts go next, and how that fits into a regional plan. I’ve only got a lifetime ahead of me to see where it all goes, and offer my two cents along the way.