Just before the start of the first classes of the school year at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, a boy groggy got out of a van in the parent drop-off lane at Bruce Vento Elementary.
“Usually they come out the door,” Principal Nicky Napierala said, noting the two-hour difference from last year’s 9:30 a.m. start time.
Between closings and mergers, reopenings and new schedules, about half of St. Paul’s public school buildings are undergoing significant changes this fall.
In Bruce Vento, about a third of students and staff came from nearby John A. Johnson Elementary School, one of five schools that closed due to low enrollment. It is also one of a dozen schools that have had their start times changed by an hour or two to preserve early and late start school options in every neighborhood of the city.
The early start has its pros and cons, but Napierala called John A. Johnson’s merger “perfect.”
“I’m thrilled that we can welcome John A. Johnson students and make them feel part of a new community,” she said. “We’ve pretty much won their entire staff, which is great.”
The consolidation was intended to help stabilize enrollment after a decade-long decline by creating “well-balanced” schools with teachers specializing in non-essential classes. Now with around 600 students, Napierala said she was able to add specialists in science, social studies and media technology.
More changes will come to Bruce Vento next year, when the district begins construction of a new school building on the east half of the property in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood.
For Farhan Aden, it will mean saying goodbye to the building that taught the two eldest of his four children.
“It was a great experience. The school is really nice,” he said after dropping off his fifth grade son.
Classes in the Saint-Paul district have been held in person since the spring of 2021, but the coronavirus pandemic has not left parents’ minds. As several students walked into Bruce Vento wearing face masks on Tuesday morning, Aden said it looked like an “almost” normal school year.
“It was difficult, but we made it,” he said.
Masks are now optional in St. Paul’s public schools.
At 834, the district’s online school enrollment is down from last October, when it was 1,247 plus a waiting list in the hundreds. Middle and high school classes are full, but the online elementary school has just 335 students, down from 733 last year.
The district continues to face a staffing shortage exacerbated by the pandemic and a strong employment situation statewide.
A virtual job fair is scheduled for Thursday for paraprofessionals and special educators. And the district, two weeks ago, is expected to have only about 215 bus drivers – down from 175 last year but down from 300 before the pandemic, meaning it will rely heavily on Metro Transit to bring people students to and from high schools.
Fifty of 230 buses were at least 10 minutes late picking up students Tuesday morning, according to district spokeswoman Erica Wacker, who described it as “much better than last year.”
“Our contractors report poor traffic due to construction as a major issue on day one,” she said.
Following consolidation, John A. Johnson and Jackson elementary schools emptied out.
Galtier Elementary School and the lower French Immersion L’Étoile du Nord campus have closed and reopened as early childhood centers.
Parkway is still a college, but it’s now for Hmong studies, not Montessori.
Bruce Vento, Maxfield, Phalen Lake, Hamline, JJ Hill and Upper North Star Campus are welcoming new elementary students as part of the consolidation.
River View Elementary now only serves dual-immersion Spanish students after sending its community school program to Cherokee Heights, which itself dropped out of Montessori.
Highwood Hills Elementary, which nearly closed, is trying to reinvent itself with a focus on technology, engineering and agriculture.
Ramsey Middle School begins the school year with a new name, Hidden River.
And there’s a new Career and Pathway Center on the St. Paul College campus for high school juniors and seniors to try career-focused classes in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, 12 schools have new start times and all 10 high schools — up from three last year — are using block schedules, where students take four 79-minute classes one day and four different classes the next.