A visit to Minneapolis North High Schoolby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
Critics of high schools who say they are obsolete, point to the racial achievement gap as one of the schools' biggest failings. Numbers nationwide show African American, Latino and American Indian students don't test as well as their white and Asian American counterparts, and their graduation rates are lower.
In Minneapolis, North High School became the target of criticism from an African American member of the City Council. He suggested the school should be burned down because too many black students there are failing. School supporters say the criticism was unduly harsh and inaccurate. And they say the only way to know what goes on at North is spend some time there.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Across the street from the teacher's parking lot at North High School, a car sits abandoned, two of its four tires and shiny chrome rims straddle the boulevard. Nearby, a house with more dirt than grass in the front yard is littered with garbage.
North High is surrounded by a community that has a higher concentration of poverty than you'll find in other parts of the city.
Some of that is reflected in the population of students. Eight in 10 North students receive free or reduced lunches, which is how the district determines which students are from low-income families.
Inside the school, things are more cheerful than the scene outside.
INSIDE PHYSICS CLASS
It's the first day of the new quarter and Gretchen Kulas' students are still a bit giddy after coming off spring break.
Kulas teaches physics and advanced placement physics. Her non-AP students are about to begin studying the universe. And to help introduce the topic, Kulas directs their attention to the TV at the front of the class.
Kulas will use clips from the original Star Wars movie to help illustrate lessons about the origins of the solar system. Over the course of the next semester, her students will test some of the "science" presented in the movie. They will ponder whether planets like Tatooine can actually have two suns, and whether it's possible to jump to light speed?
Kulas has been at North for eight years, and she loves it here. But she knows not everyone shares her enthusiasm for the school.
Kulas says the reputation of the north side as an area that has seen more than its fair share of crime has tainted some people's view of the school. When Kulas tells people what part of town she works in, they often ask her if she feels safe.
Kulas's main concern is making sure her students are learning. Kulas is white, while 68 percent of the nearly 1,000 students here are African American. Another 25 percent are Asian American.
Kulas says she doesn't pay attention to the racial identity of her students, but she does acknowledge there's a racial achievement gap. And she's trying to close it.
"I don't think it matters if they're African American, or white or whatever. I think it's a matter of making the students interested and making it real," says Kulas. "I don't think they're relating a lot to what the teachers are presenting them. But if we can motivate them more into understanding how it applies to them, then I think it would take care of some of that achievement gap."
STATS REVEAL PROGRESS, CHALLENGES
A statistical profile of North High compiled by the Minneapolis school district shows both progress and challenges for African Americans students. The numbers are based on the school year that ended in 2006, the most recent data available.
First, the good news. Fewer black students are dropping out of North than in the past several years. In 2004, 44 African American students dropped out. In 2006 that number fell to 15.
On one level, the school's graduation numbers for African American students looks good. In 2006, 82 percent of eligible black students graduated from North. That's much better than the 72 percent failure rate for black males that council member Don Samuels cited when he made his remarks.
Samuels' stats were based on outdated data that was the subject of some debate regarding its accuracy. However, it turns out, they may not be that far off the mark. Here's why.
The district's graduation numbers are based on a formula that's being phased out. The new formula excludes students who don't graduate in four years, or who have left the school for an unknown reason.
District officials point out that schools like North have a highly mobile student population, meaning that a lot of their students move during the school year. And the new formula will likely bring the graduation rate for all groups of students way down.
For example, the old graduation rate for African American students statewide was 68 percent. Under the new formula, that number drops to 38 percent.
SAMUELS TAKES ON SACRED COWS
"Somebody needs to freak out about that," says Samuels, who represents the part of north Minneapolis where the school is located.
Samuels says his "burn it down" comment caused more people to freak out over the words he used, rather than the issue he was trying to raise. Samuels says his point was to get people talking about the under-education of black youth, particularly African American boys. He's critical of the track record of Minneapolis public schools on that issue.
But he's also cast a critical eye on the behavior of some students there. Samuels says he's heard from parents who've pulled their students out of North High because their kids have gotten into fights.
Samuels says he hopes people who are concerned about the education of African American youth will not be afraid to knock over a sacred cow or two in the pursuit of a solution.
"I just want us all to wake up and get very uncomfortable. And hurt," says Samuels. "Because it's a painful situation and we've innoculated ourselves -- sometimes with the American dream, sometimes with personal success and sometimes with a desire to feel good about ourselves -- that we're in a good community, that we belong to a good school and we're good people, and those things aren't necessarily true."
"The situation is bad," says Samuels. "It needs to be fixed. But before it can be fixed, you have to say it's bad."
NORTH STUDENTS CHALLENGE SAMUELS
Some of the students in Gretchen Kulas' classroom don't think things at North are as bad as Samuels says.
"What do I think about the school? I love North High," says senior Shalanda Staten.
"I'm the president of the National Honor Society. I'm the citywide student government liasion to the Board of Education -- all through North High," says Staten. "The teachers are great. I get a good education. My GPA is still high. I learn more than the material. I learn stuff that I can apply to many areas of my life. I think North is a great school."
Staten plans to go to Dillard College in New Orleans next year. One of her goals is to use her people and leaderhip skills to help residents continue their rebound from Hurricane Katrina.
Staten is also one of three students who got a chance to follow Councilmember Samuels around for a day. And she says the experience was good for both of them.
Staten says she thinks Samuels got a better understanding of why the students took offense to what he said. And she says she understands that he was trying to make a larger point about Minneapolis public schools' response to the needs of African American students.
Other students weren't quite as forgiving toward Samuels. Senior Tim Weaver transferred here from Henry, another north Minneapolis high school, two years ago. Samuels' comments made Weaver so angry he can't say on the radio how they made him feel.
"If I had a chance to talk to him, to sit down and talk to him, I'd tell him how I felt about it," says Weaver. "I'm a black male and I've been here for two years. And I say that from Henry to here was a better transition."
Weaver has a basketball scholarship to attend a small college. Before he came to North, Weaver says he heard bad things about the teachers at the school -- that they didn't really care about the students.
But Weaver says that's not true. He says they go out of their way to help students who are having problems.
"GOOD THINGS GO ON HERE"
Junior Katie Miller is the only white student in one of Kulas' advanced placement classes. Miller, who'd like to be a forensic scientist one day, says people outside the school assume that because they hear about crime or other problems in north Minneapolis, that it is reflective of what's inside the school.
"The environment that surrounds the school gives a bad perception of what goes on inside here. People haven't walked the halls in here. They haven't sat in classrooms seeing the kids actually trying to do their work," says Miller. "They don't know what's going on, because the media doesn't always show the improvements and the good things that actually do go on in here."
Gretchen Kulas says something else that people should know about North High is the level of involvement and cooperation she gets from the parents of her students.
There's a group called Polar Parents that meets at the school regularly. And some parents, like Jewelean Jackson, make a point to monitor their child's classes.
"Because wherever my child is, I too shall be," she says.
Ms. Jackson, as she is called by everyone, is the mother of sophomore Thandisizwe Jackson-Nisan. Thandisizwe was recently named the State Poetry Recitation Champion by the State Arts Board, and will soon compete for the national title in Washington D.C.
Jackson says her daughter was at a predominantly white private school last year and didn't like it. She wanted to be at a school with more African Americans.
Jackson says she's glad her daughter wants to be at North. But like Don Samuels, she has a concern about student behavior.
Jackson says her daughter has been threatened a few times, though she hasn't been assaulted. And she's seen some kids clowning around in classrooms during testing time.
"Too many of our kids, let me say that, don't seem to understand that your life's reality can be dictated by options and opportunities. Starting with the educational foundation," says Jackson. "The better the grades, the higher the GPA, the more doors are going to open for you. So that's been a continued frustration. And that didn't start with North, I've just noticed it with our children."
STUDENTS FEEL THE PRESSURE
The pressure is on for high schools to do a better job of educating children of color and students from low-income families. In Minneapolis, public schools are facing competition from charter schools which can cater to specific needs of children of color.
Of course, those with the largest stake in education are the students themselves. And many North High students appear to be very aware of how important it is to not only graduate but to get a college degree as well.
Maybe that's because they can see, sometimes right outside the door of the school, what life holds for those without the ability to move up and out of poverty.