Minneapolis North High grads want Summatech back

“They drown-proofed us repeatedly.”

For Minneapolis North High School graduate Dr. Ronda Chakolis, learning how not to drown in deep water, literally, was an important part of the North High magnet program, called Summatech, that she attended. Chakolis remembers being taken to the pool at nearby Franklin Middle School and getting tipped over in a canoe, in an exercise designed to teach students to survive a potential drowning.

In a less literal sense, Chakolis remembers her whole high school experience in the Summatech program as being about “drown-proofing.” Summatech, which was prominent at North High in the 1980s and ‘90s, was built around a hands-on math, science, and technology curriculum. For Chakolis, who was always interested in these subjects, attending Summatech also meant learning not to drown by being immersed in the real-world coursework of scientists and academics, and learning how to succeed.

Dr. Rhonda Chakolis


Today, Chakolis is a pharmacist in Minneapolis, and she is part of a group of Summatech graduates who would like to see the program restored to North High, as part of the school district’s Five-Year Enrollment Plan. For Chakolis, one key aspect of Summatech was the way the teachers, especially the three African American women in the program who were science teachers, taught science-based protocols to their students. For example, Chakolis says she was taught dissection, how to properly dispose of materials, and how to use chemical equations, which are the kind of practical skills and knowledge she still uses today in her work. 


Peter Jirak


Her fellow North High graduate, Peter Jirak, also vividly remembers his time in the Summatech program. For Jirak, who went on to get a degree in math and computer science from the University of Minnesota, the Summatech program’s emphasis on critical thinking has served him well. In Summatech, Jirak says teachers “nurtured and encouraged” students to ask questions and find answers, using research and data for support. Today, he thinks, in the age of internet-based information, this approach to knowledge is even more important, and part of why he thinks Summatech should be restored to North.

Another reason Jirak would like Summatech back at North is that, as a white student who chose to attend the school from outside the district, he remembers being part of a diverse student body in high school as “very powerful.” At North, he found himself surrounded by “classmates, friends, and teachers who were non-white,” but who shared a commitment to hard work and education. This is important, says Jirak, because it “exposes people to each other” and helps break down the boundaries of what he sees as a segregated Minneapolis.


Trena Baker-Albritton


Summatech graduate Trena Baker-Allbritton also fondly recalls her years in the program, as well as the college-like application process she followed to get in to the program. Allbright calls the essay she had to write, as a prospective Summatech student, “very pertinent,” and part of a program-wide preparation process for college.

Baker-Allbritton now works as a public health nurse in north Minneapolis, and remembers being exposed to all of the different career paths and possibilities in science and technology through the field trips she went on at Summatech. Additionally, Baker-Allbritton calls the work she did at Summatech, such as going out to nearby Brownie Lake, collecting water samples, and bringing them back to North for analysis, a “thrill.”

While Baker-Allbritton’s memories of the program, as it was, are powerful, her concern about current and future north Minneapolis children is also driving her push to get Summatech back at North High. Calling the program “really great” and “relevant,” Baker-Allbritton wants today’s North High students to get the same preparation she did to excel academically beyond high school. In her work as a nurse, Baker-Allbritton has focused on the social determinants of health, such as how access to housing, jobs, and a quality education affects a person’s health. For Baker-Allbritton, bringing a strong program like Summatech back to North High could have a ripple effect that would result in positive change for the community around North.

For Baker-Allbritton Jirak, and Chakolis, the strong teachers in the Summatech program really stand out in their memories, and for these three, bringing the program back to North must involve finding teachers who are excited and passionate about the school. Chakolis noted the PhD-level scientists who taught in the program, and the way students and teachers stayed together for the entire four-year high school sequence as an essential part of the program’s success.

While Chakolis is passionate about restoring Summatech to North, she also feels that current teachers in the Minneapolis Public Schools system are “so taxed,” as they are expected to always “do more with less.” Chakolis stated that she believes it would be unrealistic and unfair to ask teachers to restart the program without adequate support and planning. For her part, she said she was willing to sit down with staff to share her story and assist with a gradual implementation of a new Summatech program that would stand firmly on the solid ground of the previous one.

Related articles: 

• Five Year Enrollment Plan

• North High

The Minneapolis School Board will consider the final draft of the district's Five Year Plan proposal at the December 10 school board meeting. Chakolis and Baker-Allbritton plan to be there, to further encourage the board and school district to consider putting Summatech back in at North High School.

Chakolis and Baker-Allbritton, along with other North High School graduates, also spoke about Summatech at the November 12 school board meeting. Click here for the video, with the Summatech discussion starting around the one-hour mark.

Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.

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  • I graduated from the Summatech program at North and yes, it was truly a STEM program whete there were more girls than boys enrolled in the program and we had to take four years of math, a science and technology courses. I have friends who work for NASA, are doctors lawyers, engineers, business executives etc. Because of the rigorous education we received. In my class alone we had 5 students who were apart of the University of MN UMTYMP (University of MN talented youth mathematics program) and a total of 10 individuals total . We had so many students that one of our math teachers went back amd received his PhD so that he coild teach calculus 4 in the building instead of the students trekking all the way over to the U. Summatech was a wonderful program that was apart of the magnet system much like IB, Open and Liberal Arts programs that were at South, Southwest and Henry HS. Students had to apply to be in the program just like every other magnet program at the time and with the 85 students that were in my Summatech class, about 75% of them were black. This was an excellent program that the district killed and didn't support after the retirement of the two program founders and administrators. It's very rare that you will meet a woman with a MA in physics, let alone a black woman, but Mrs. Halcomb taught me how to think and how to dream and made the transition from calculus to physics much easier for me as an advance standing 9th grader. I loved my high school education. It was the best educational experience of my life and it built the foundation that I currently have to work in the field of my choice. - by Terra B. Cole on Wed, 12/04/2013 - 9:12am
  • I too am a "summa-nerd" (as a lot of us dubbed ourselves). That program is what soley brought me to North High, as I lived three blocks from Henry. It was a wonderful program with teachers who truly cared and taught with passion. It fed my love for science, techonlogy and my need to know why! Chemisrty, physics, trigonometry, probability, statistics, CADD, electronics, environmental studies, you name it, we did it! I don't think I'd be where I am today without it. BRING IT BACK, OUR YOUTH, OUR FURTURE, NEEDS IT! - by Tammie Peckels Ybarra on Wed, 12/04/2013 - 3:03pm
  • I am also a Summatech graduate and it was indeed a STEM program before STEM. The program position many of us for a successful future, I am thankful for the experience. - by Chanda Smith Baker on Wed, 12/04/2013 - 9:43am
  • I believe this program taught me so many skills that help me get to where I am today. - by Latisha Dawson on Thu, 12/05/2013 - 9:24pm
  • I also graduated from the Summatech program. I, similar to Peter Jirak, chose to attend North because of the program, it was not my 'home' school. Without this program, I would not be where I am today. The vigorous Math, Science and Technology core classes that were required, were far more than what were necessary for graduation requirements. When I started my College classes, it was an easy transition... without the North High Summatech program and the excellent teachers, it wouldn't have been as easy at it was to transition to college courses. I do not live in the area anymore, but would love to be able to institute some form of this in the schools in this area. - by Heather M. Keckeisen on Fri, 12/06/2013 - 10:22am
  • I was in the 2nd year of Summatech. Truly STEM before STEM. Mrs. Holcomb kept me in Science and Mr. Bruce (forgot last name) introduced me to computers. How Summatech was left to drown I don't know but it needs to return for our kids fully funded and bought in to by the community. - by Tyren McGruder on Wed, 12/04/2013 - 11:27pm
  • I had never heard of Summatech before the Board Meeting which I attended. Sounds like STEM before it was all the rage. Was it a magnet within North? Or part of the whole curriculum? Can anyone share? - by Blaire Hartley on Tue, 12/03/2013 - 9:56pm
  • Proud North Alumni - Polars Standing Up - by Lynne Crockett on Wed, 12/04/2013 - 1:52pm

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Sarah Lahm

Sarah Lahm (sarah dot lahm at gmail dot com) is a writer, blogger, and former English Instructor. She has children in the Minneapolis Public Schools and volunteers for ACT for Education.