By Charles Hallman
Accusations fly as to how the venerable school got in such bad shape
To many, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s recommendation to phase out North High School in three years finally confirmed a long-standing rumor that a “systemic” plan to close the city’s oldest high school had already been in place for several years.
Johnson told the packed audience at an October 12 board meeting that previous efforts to boost the school’s attendance, including adding a new international baccalaureate program, reducing the school’s “walk zone” from two miles to one mile, and establishing a city-wide attendance area, have not been successful.
That, and the fact that the district spends $4,000 more per child to educate North students than in the other six city high schools, left her no other choice but recommend closing North High.
“This can’t be a decision based on what was, but what is,” she said.
“There must be a minimum number of students participating to make it economically feasible and educationally viable,” agreed Board Member T. Williams, adding that North High “might not be the school we need today.”
Although students once were required to attend only the schools in their neighborhood, “We are in the open enrollment era where students can go to the school of their choice,” he noted.
“We need a school that can meet the needs of today’s youth, and can engage the current community in helping it design and build that school.
Whatever we do at North have to be competitive and attractive to parents in and outside of North Minneapolis, and outside the Minneapolis School District,” Williams said.
However, as a Northside resident pointed out after Johnson publicly announced her plan last week, “North High is now off life support,” where its future has been gingerly hanging on for several years now.
Questions still abound on what ultimately caused North High to experience a 75-percent enrollment drop in six years, from over 1,100 students to the 265 students presently enrolled.
“I know people want to get into a point-by-point debate on what happened,” said Johnson during an interview with the MSR last week. “But we have made several attempts to try to make North an attractive option for families in the community. I’ve been monitoring the enrollment at North High since January.”
However, some blame the Minneapolis School District’s closing of several area elementary and junior high schools in recent years. These schools once served as North High’s main source of students.
“[The school board members] have made some pretty lousy decisions as far as North Minneapolis in the last few years,” said Buzzy Bohn, whose son graduated from North in 1995. “They closed the feeder schools — Willard, Lincoln and Franklin — and I knew that it would hurt North’s attendance,” she pointed out.
Said 17-year-old Tisha Rogers, who attends Henry, “All the elementary schools are gone — we don’t have anybody coming to North. How we are going to get [North High’s] enrollment up if all the middle schools are gone? Once you lose a school, you lose a community.”
Others believe that when it came to North High, MPS offered only “defective promises.”
“This decision has been hard for me,” Johnson admitted last week, adding that North had the lowest test scores among the district’s seven high schools: 26 percent are proficient in reading, eight percent in math, and four percent in science.
“You look at the overall academic achievement of the students in the school, and you look at the number of key staff members who have left the school, and you think about what is happening to students and what they deserve,” said the superintendent.
“Ultimately I have to ask the question, ‘If your children were high school age, would you send your children to North High?’ The community is not choosing North High as a school.”
Johnson also disputes those who contend that she has not supported the school or went back on her word. “I have supported the Friends of North [an alumni support group]… I said that I would keep [North High] for the 2010-11 school year, but if things didn’t change, I would have to make a different recommendation for 2011-12. I was quite clear about that.”
For Minneapolis NAACP President Booker Hodges, “The trust with the school board is nonexistent.” Last week he strongly suggested that city parents consider pulling their children out of city schools.
“Parents in general just need to consider options other than the Minneapolis School District,” Hodges told the MSR. “This school board can no longer be trusted to educate anybody’s kids. At this point, there is a general feeling that they have no desire to educate kids in North Minneapolis. The North High thing was the last straw.”
Hodges further explained that after the March 2000 settlement of an NAACP lawsuit that allowed more Minneapolis families access to suburban schools and magnet programs, the city’s school board did not respond positively. As a result, Hodges believes the school board must take full responsibility for North’s demise.
“Had they improved the schools back when the lawsuit was done, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said.
“Everybody is looking for someone to blame,” said Williams, who proposed last week that no decision on North be made until “a comprehensive plan” is completed that includes whether or not the school can be saved.
Johnson wants all students in her district “to get the best education” and believes that the community wants this as well, which is why the superintendent supports “Minneapolis College Prep,” the two charter schools slated to open in North Minneapolis in the fall of 2011.
“It is a proven program that has worked in Chicago for a number of years, and they are interested in opening in North Minneapolis,” said Johnson.
But some parents like Bohn do not favor MPS sponsoring two new charter schools next school year given North’s decline. “I feel like [district officials] want to get rid of North so that they can turn it over as a charter school.
That’s very disturbing to me as a Northside resident,” Bohn said.
Johnson and other MPS officials were scheduled to meet Monday evening with the community at North High. Although no final decision has been made, many feel that the school’s fate has already been sealed.
“I think the writing has been on the wall for a while,” noted KFAN personality Henry Lake, who discussed the North High situation on the sports station last week. “The problem is that we have to be held accountable in our community for not continuously sending our kids over the years to Minneapolis North.”
Lake also brought up the “burn North High down” comment made several years ago by Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels, which gave an unfavorable impression of the school. Lake believes the comment caused “irreparable damages,” adding, “It is a determent to the school that those perceptions continue to exist.”
The MSR left several messages for Samuels requesting his comments on the proposed closing of North, but he did not return our calls.
“I felt like my education was superb,” said 2009 North graduate Brittany Williams. “Test scores don’t tell the whole story on what is going on there.”
“This school is a viable high school,” Tamela Washington-Green insisted. Her son is a 2010 North graduate, and she currently has a daughter in the 11th grade at the school.
She believes that by adding in three new programs — adult basic education, a school for teen mothers, and a charter high school — “They [MPS] have created a hostile learning environment in that building by physically changing how the campus is designed and set up.”
Washington-Green also blames district officials “for not putting out accurate facts” about North’s current situation.
Marcus Owens, an area homeowner and North graduate, said he fears the community without a high school will adversely affect his property value.
He also suggested that a new board — “a new, fresh set of eyes” — should take up the North High matter after the November elections.
“They’re the ones who will have to reap what happens [if North High is closed],” said Owens.
He added that what’s needed is “a thorough analysis of the failures that led to this, the root cause on why students have left, but also the root cause on why students left the community in general.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.