Tuttle/Pratt merger shakes up Southeast neighborhoods

Parents, students and staff prepare for a very different school year

When Gregory Isola heard on Fox 9 News on March 20 that Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) officials were recommending that Tuttle School close and merge with Pratt, he called the newsroom to tell them they had their facts mixed up.

“I told them that Pratt is a very small school and that it didn’t make any sense,” he said. “I said they must have the school names turned around.”

The next morning, Isola — parent liaison at Tuttle and the father of three Tuttle students — said his wife woke him up after reading the Star Tribune. “Why didn’t you tell me Tuttle was closing?” she asked him. “Because I didn’t know it was,” he answered. “Suddenly the whole world was upside down.”

The timing — coming just before spring break — made it very difficult for Tuttle families to mobilize in order to convince district officials to change their minds, Isola said. Tuttle supporters scheduled a March 28 meeting, at which more than 100 people made their case before school officials. They also wrote letters to School Board members, painted signs and made impassioned pleas at an April 10 public hearing and the April 12 School Board meetings, after which board members voted to close Tuttle Middle School and move the existing K–5 program to Pratt.

The vote was 6 to 1, with only Board Member Chris Stewart voting against. Stewart said he felt the process had been rushed, and that the board had not adequately analyzed the situation of the city’s East Side schools.

Board picks Pratt over Tuttle

The decision — and the three weeks leading up to it — left Tuttle parents and Como residents reeling. While Pratt’s small size made it a perennial candidate for closure, Tuttle families, staff, and neighbors say they had no indication they would be targeted.

Even Ellen Murphy, principal of both Pratt and Tuttle, which have operated as sister schools since 2000, said she had no clue the district was considering closing Tuttle. “Pratt was always considered too small,” she said. “Why keep it open and close schools that are much larger? I thought Pratt would probably close.”

Holly Day, a Tuttle parent and Como resident, agreed, noting that Tuttle is in a larger and better-equipped building than Pratt. “We already have a band teacher, a media center, a gym, a cafeteria, a huge playground,” she said. “They’re going to have to build all that at Pratt.”

Isola and other Tuttle parents feel strongly that School Board members failed to keep them informed or include them in any sort of community discussion. Several board members acknowledged mistakes in communication about the Southeast school’s situation. “We should have done a better job of engaging the community in Southeast Minneapolis,” said Board Member T. Williams. Board Member Tom Madden agreed. “We fulfilled the letter of the law, but not the spirit,” he said.

By contrast, Pratt parents feel the board has been receptive and supportive of their concerns. Warling said Pratt parents are confident they will get the support they need from the district to make the new larger Pratt successful. “We very much have the ear of the board,” he said. “I think we can reach out to them directly and make things happen. They have a real interest in making this work.”

One factor that led the school board to close Tuttle instead of Pratt was the enrollment of Tuttle Middle School. With just one class each for grades 6–8, the program never had enough students to hire full-time teachers. “Everyone that works in the middle school is part-time,” Murphy said. “We have four core subjects and were given enough money for three full-time teachers.”

Murphy agreed with the board that middle school students were not being adequately served. “We as a staff felt that, unless we could get some additional monies to hire full-time staff, we weren’t doing justice to the kids that were here,” she said.

Murphy feels the middle school was denied a chance to grow last year, when the district declined to add an additional teacher despite class sizes of more than 40 students. “That was a chance for us to really make the Pratt-Tuttle project congeal,” she said.

Tuttle parent Mark Tondra was critical of the district for not adding middle school teachers. “It’s too bad the students who had graduated from Pratt and then came to Tuttle didn’t stay here,” he said, “but the classes were so big, and they wouldn’t add any teachers and that led to behavior problems.”

With the middle school closed, school district officials said the remaining K–5 program — approximately 150 students — would leave the Tuttle building “half empty,” one reason for the ultimate decision to move the elementary students to Pratt, also under-enrolled at 88 students. “We don’t have enough kids in this part of town to support all three buildings,” said School Board Member Tom Madden, referring to Tuttle, Pratt and Marcy Open School in Marcy-Holmes.

Both Madden and Board Chair Pam Costain were concerned that if they closed Pratt, they would have to close Tuttle in two years anyway. “I don’t want to lose both Tuttle and Pratt,” said Costain. “Pratt is the school that has the greatest chance of success in the Southeast community.”

Costain cited “the integration of the school at Pratt, the strong work with the Somali families, and the high academic achievement among students of color. “We cannot point to [that combination of factors] in almost any other Minneapolis public school,” she said.

Madden argued that Pratt’s higher test scores outweighed Tuttle’s superior facility. “Tuttle is in the lower half academically,” he said. “I know it’s not going to make people happy to hear that, but Pratt is in the top three academically of all of our schools. I think we have a better chance of bringing people to an academically strong program than the other way around.”

Costain cited the support of the Prospect Park community, noting that a larger percentage of Prospect Park children attended Pratt than Como children attended Tuttle. She strongly believes that the Pratt community is ready and able to welcome Tuttle students, and to adjust to a school that could be three times its current size. “I feel personally that Pratt is a model,” said Costain. “I believe that they will work with the incoming students … to keep that model.”

Pratt parent Darin Warling admitted the prospect is “a little scary. It’s going to fundamentally change the nature of the school that we have come to like very much,” he said. Warling guesses there could be 200 students in the fall. School officials have told Pratt to plan on two classes each for grades K–5, which could put the number at closer to 300. “We don’t think the district would do that to us,” said Warling. “That would be a little hard for us to absorb in one year.”

What about the buildings?

Questions remain about Pratt’s physical infrastructure, particularly how to fit so many students into a school that currently has four classrooms, a small playground, no lunchroom (students currently eat at tables in the hallways) and shares space with a community education program, which Steve Liss, chief operating officer, has said will need to be “realigned.”

Asked at the March 28 Tuttle meeting what physical work would need to be done at Pratt, Liss responded that “an insignificant investment” would be necessary, involving the removal of nonstructural walls and some expansion to make a real lunchroom. “It’s mostly moving some of the community ed[ucation] folks … out of the building,” he said.

However, both Warling and Costain said after the April 12 vote that they hoped to see Pratt’s unfinished third floor renovated for use by fall 2008, with funding coming from a public-private partnership. “We hope there will be joint funding between the school district, the city, through NRP, and community ed[ucation],” said Warling.

Asked how the merger would save money, in light of other costs such as for renovations to the Pratt building, Costain said that, in her opinion, “the issue is less cost savings … than that we really have to strengthen the academic program.”

Liss also could not give an estimate for how much money would be saved through the merger, as it would depend on the reuse of the Tuttle building, he said. The district is currently seeking proposals from consultants.

Decision time, and goodbye to Tuttle

In the next few weeks, Tuttle parents will choose which school their children will attend this fall (see sidebar on page 1). They’ll also be busy planning end-of-the-year celebrations. Day said parents hope to use the funds they have left to have parties for the students and the Como community. “We want to end the year on the nicest possible note,” she said.

Still, Isola said it will be very hard to leave Tuttle, the longest continuously operating school in the Minneapolis district. “The school has an interesting history, a great community, a great neighborhood, and we’ve had great partnerships with places like UCare and the University of Minnesota,” he said. “We’ve loved it around here.”

The closure of the school program is a loss to the larger Como community, as well, and neighbors are wondering what will happen to the Tuttle building. Madden said the School Board will engage the community in discussions about how they would like to see the building reused. He hopes there will be recommendations by midsummer. Liss said the district will maintain the Tuttle building as long as we own it.”

Looking ahead, Principal Murphy hopes that the whole Southeast community will mobilize to address the educational needs of children and families in the area. “I think that what Southeast needs to do is get the three communities — Marcy-Holmes, Prospect Park and Como — really talking together about what needs to be done,” she said.

Day noted that Tuttle students, not just adults, have learned a valuable — albeit difficult — lesson. “I think the kids got a really good civics lesson from all those meetings,” she said. “Those kids were really there for their school, and the Como neighborhood really came out to support us at the big meeting, but it didn’t matter. It was a reality lesson — one I was hoping my kids wouldn’t have to learn so soon.”

Pratt parents are planning a May 1 open house to welcome Tuttle students and staff to their new facility. The dinner event will include pizza and Somali dishes, as well as activities for the kids.

last revised: May 2, 2007