FREE SPEECH ZONE | Commentary on North High closing

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As a former teacher at North High and co-founder of Polar Producers, an after school program housed there, I was saddened but not surprised by the district’s plans to close the school.

While I understand the need to close a high school in the face of dwindling student numbers, I’m concerned about the lack of transparency in the way the district has gone about it.  Why not openly discuss which school to close between the three Northside and four Southside schools?

Like all Minneapolis high schools, North’s enrollment was declining before the district made it a citywide program.   That new designation meant that North would be no one’s home school. Considering it’s location in a troubled neighborhood, it’s not surprising that enrollment plummeted.

At the time, this seemed like an opportunity for North to retool itself as a smaller more rigorous school focusing on two programs: STEM and media arts.  But my experience running an after school media arts program at North has convinced me that the district had no real intentions of letting the school succeed.  Instead, it was a way to quietly dissolve the school while avoiding a messy public fight.

Polar Producers was founded as a partnership between North High, KBEM radio and IFP Media Arts.  We focused on creating student directed documentaries, such as “Peace by Piece”, a film profiling organizations making positive change in North Minneapolis.  Over the two years the program ran, our students won numerous awards and saw their films screened at local theaters.

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The program grew to attract students from all seven Minneapolis high schools.  Students from the Southside were bussing to the Northside after school to be in our program.  It seemed a positive development for a school required to attract students from across the district.  But as the program grew, district support strangely disappeared.

In the program’s second year, funding for my position as well as the program “snack fund” was cut.  But increased support from IFP Media Arts kept it running.  Polar Producers started last fall at full capacity, with a group of 28 students from across the district beginning work on their first video projects.

During the first week, the district cut our after school bussing.  Even then, we were able to find funding sources to get kids home on city buses.  The second week we learned there would also be no funds for North’s media arts teacher to work with us after school.  And without that funding, we legally wouldn’t be allowed in the building.  We could no longer run the program.

I’ve been able to restart the program this year at our IFP facilities in St Paul.  We now serve students from six different high schools in the St Paul district

My two sons currently attend Bryn Mawr Elementary School, a Minneapolis school in our neighborhood.  My oldest son is in fourth grade and has had nothing but wonderfully dedicated teachers there.  But each year the school loses more neighborhood kids.  Why are families abandoning this excellent school only blocks from their homes?  It seems many have lost faith in Minneapolis schools.  To me, the district administration’s lack of transparency seems like a big part of that problem.