In the Hamline-Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, tiny but tough Galtier Elementary is a gem of a community school.
Parent Clayton Howatt has no doubt about it. His kindergartner had many a weepy morning pining for mom and dad when she entered the school. It was no big deal for her old pre-K teacher to visit and comfort her, or for another teacher to do the same.
“The administration does an amazing job setting the tone and working with the teachers, and the teachers really buy into that system,” Howatt says. “It just creates a small, welcoming, loving environment.”
With just 150 students from all backgrounds, the school is set up like an open studio, where kids in different grades learn together and from each other. Class sizes are small and intimate, supported by a robust staff of aides and teachers who know the name of each student.
Principal Shawn Stibbins treasures every child and inspires his staff to do that same, Howatt says.
He and other Galtier parents gush about their school. But because of a rocky effort by the district to change it from a magnet to a community school, enrollment has plummeted over the past several years — to the point where closure seems imminent.
About three years ago, Superintendent Valeria Silva launched her Strong Schools, Strong Communities master plan to bolster neighborhood schools by canceling school choice and cross-district busing. Before that, Galtier was a magnet school that sucked in kids from the East Side. Silva's plan kept those kids to their side of town, and Galtier’s enrollment halved seemingly overnight.
At the same time, there was little effort to market Galtier to Hamline-Midway families as their newly reinvented community school. Other schools in the area with more programs and deemed to be better by parents – like JJ Hill Montessori and St. Anthony Park – prevented Galtier from expanding.
Nearby Hamline Elementary, though slightly larger, is facing the same problem. Whereas Hamline had close to 600 students some seven years ago, it now holds only 260 kids. Next year, it will lose its Chinese immersion program.
The district’s unofficial plan now is to close Galtier either next year or the year after. Galtier’s 150 students would combine with Hamline’s, and Galtier would be remodeled into an early childhood learning center.
Meanwhile, as St. Anthony Park attracts more and more students, it’s receiving more programming, and more resources from the district.
“This is where it gets infuriating,” Howatt says. “One of the things we face is once you get to certain student levels, you get programs. Parents come to us asking if we have an art class, and we’re like no… we don’t have enough students for an art class. So they look at other schools like St. Anthony Park. It’s a knock against us.”
Howatt, who is part of a parents group for Galtier and Hamline, says district representatives unveiled their intentions for Galtier at a planning meeting about a month ago. He thinks closing Galtier would be a terrible idea.
Galtier has one of the highest percentages of homeless kids in St. Paul. They need stability. And if Galtier were to merge with Hamline, there’s no promise that Hamline still wouldn’t struggle with enrollment. “It basically starts this whole process over,” says Howatt.
Ebony Thrower, the mother of a Galtier third grader, just wants district representatives to spend a day in the school, observing. She doesn’t understand why the district won't keep it open. It's compactness, after all, is what makes it successful, she believes.
“Galtier is a public school in the city. The city can be rough, but I like that we’re teaching kids structure, discipline, teaching them how to better themselves. I liked that, because that lets me know a lot of these kids are gonna succeed,” Thrower says. “I’m really confused on why it’s closing because it’s a school that’s working.”
If Galtier closes, Thrower says she'll head to the suburbs. She refuses to enroll her daughter in Hamline because it would feel like sabotage.
“This is hurting families. This is tearing people up. Lots of families are already trickling out and it’s causing the administration there frustration. There’s a lot of hurt and pain. It’s brutal to watch it crumble.”
Khalid Osman, who has a daughter in first grade and another in pre-K, chooses to send his children to Galtier instead of the Somali charter school where he teaches so that they can be exposed to kids from all different ethnic and economic backgrounds. Three years ago, his eldest wasn't able to speak English. Now she talks like it's her first language. He credits Galtier's big-hearted, open-minded teachers.
"They don’t look at you like you’re an immigrant," Osman says. "They don’t look at you because you speak a different language. They don’t look at you like you’re black or white. They really welcome you from the heart."
When Osman first moved to the neighborhood, Howatt and his family welcomed him. Their children hug when they see each other and play together after school.
"This has been the best year that this school has had. All the parents are connected, and the entire community wants this school to continue," Osman says. "I have a master's degree in education. I've been to different schools, and I haven't seen the goodness that's going on in Galtier. We don't want it to go away."