By itself, closing North won't help students succeedby Chanda Smith Baker
The potential closing of North High has stirred up emotions in an unexpected way.
Last year, I spoke with several staff and members of the leadership after they received notice that they were facing consequences because North had been identified as a persistently low performing school. The consequences included several choices: Two meant significant turnover in staff, and one was for the school to close. The decision was made to turn over staff at the school.
This year I attended the open house for incoming students. The auditorium was fuller than expected, with many supportive community members in attendance to welcome the freshman students -- all 47 of them. This year's low enrollment was another sign that North was in serious trouble.
Despite the warning signs and my understanding that North's closing was a real possibility, the superintendent's announcement and recommendation to phase out North High and close it in three years gives me a heavy heart.
I am a fourth generation graduate of North High, the class of 1989. North High is a mixture of memories of my favorite teachers -- like Ms. Gregory, the librarian who recommended more books than I can remember -- Brownie Lake field trips, basketball games, and some very dear friends. My late uncle, Superintendent Richard Green, was both a teacher and principal there; the school is part of my family's history. It is a place that is close to my heart and holds many memories for me, my family and my friends.
I have a sensitivity on school closings. I remember when my Uncle Richard and the school board announced the closing of 18 schools in the 1980s. I vividly recall the emotions, the heated discussions and the frustration, particularly related to the closing of Central High school in south Minneapolis. My father had graduated from Central. It was a stressful time, to say the least.
My personal memories of North and my commitment to improve outcomes for all students have collided head-on. The fact is that North High School represents community and is a school that connects many of us in Minneapolis. This is the sort of connection that makes a strong community school. The community's loyalty and commitment to North, if directed and focused, could create a stronger school and better academic results.
The recommendation to close North came as a result of years of disinvestment and an overall lack of accountability and leadership. Currently, 267 students attend the school. There are fiscal realities that must be addressed, and waiting too long is a risk that might have harmed the entire district.
I understand why Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson made the recommendation, but I do not agree with how it was communicated and I do not believe closing North is a solution that should be made without community input and without a comprehensive plan for families. As a result, the decision has kicked up a large community debate and response. The district has to improve its communication and relationship with the community, particularly in north Minneapolis. Besides low enrollment, the other major concern at North is academic achievement. The superintendent called this a moral issue and said she could not ignore the lack of academic progress for students at North High. This is a valid point. The elimination of the achievement gap is the district's top priority.
Does closing North improve academic outcomes for students? The answer is not clear. Moreover, if closing schools becomes the solution, what does that say? There have been many changes and school closings, yet the gap has gotten wider. The displacement of students alone is not an adequate response and has been proven not to work.
Based on the enrollment numbers, North High has the best teacher-to-student ratio of all of the high schools. Research has pointed out that smaller classrooms are ideal for student success. If this is true, and I believe it is, something is not lining up.
There are students at North who are doing exceptionally well. In the student body, 20 percent are proficient in reading, 8 percent in math and 4 percent in science, and we should celebrate their accomplishments. On the other hand, 80 percent are not proficient in reading, 92 percent are not proficient in math and 96 percent are not proficient in science. That is an extreme concern, and we have to come together to figure out what our students need. Keeping North open will not improve outcomes for all students, unless there is a strong, comprehensive plan in place. A plan that includes commitment, multiple measures to evaluate effectiveness and accountability. This is a time for leadership.
This is also a benchmark moment in our community. The closing of North will either document the end of an era or mark the time when our community comes together, despite our differing opinions, to save not only North but our children.
Chanda Smith Baker is a Minneapolis school board candidate.