Hopkins High embraces growing student diversity

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In a school comprised of 28 percent students of color, there is a hip hop dance team, Deeply Royal, that’s 90 percent Black. “We have kids coming from all over the place,” said Hopkins High School Principal Willie Jett. By the year 2012, Jett anticipates the student body will be closer to 50 percent students of color and 50 percent White. 


Hopkins High student Austin McDowell, a senior and artistic graphic designer for the dance team, has noticed the shift in demographics as well as the move by the school toward greater diversity awareness. “There are groups specifically for kids of color now – it’s been growing a lot,” said McDowell.


“I like it; it makes me feel more comfortable,” he added. “There’s kids that look like me around here.”


Social studies teacher Jennifer Heimlich, who is the school’s equity coordinator, the dance team’s advisor and coach of Deeply Royal, said that the size and diversity of the group “varies every year. This year, it’s a little smaller.”


Deeply Royal isn’t the only opportunity with a bent toward Black culture. “We offer many extracurricular activities that appeal to all our students – clubs, sports, special interest events – like our hip hop dance group Deeply Royal, our hip hop recording club, [and] our international club,” said Heimlich. “We even have a knitting club and a good-for-nothing club dedicated to doing volunteer and community service work.”


Last Wednesday, February 17, Deeply Royal hosted an invitational show celebrating Black History Month. This was their fourth annual show, and it’s garnered quite a bit of attention over the years. They invited step and hip hop teams from all over the metro area to participate, and hundreds of kids and their families came out for the event, reported Heimlich.


Deeply Royal is open to students in grades 10 through 12, but at one time it included junior high students as well. Because of that open enrollment, one student, junior Shoniqua Walker, has been a member for five years.


“I love to dance,” said Walker. She elaborated on part of the appeal of the hip hop dance team. “I love Ms. Heimlich, she’s a great teacher,” adding her assessment of the team itself: “It’s a kind environment.”


For some of the dance team members, it’s all about the art of dancing. Senior Mannie Vincent, who is both a dancer and choreographer for the team, enthused, “Dance is my passion. I’ve been dancing since I was two weeks old.” One of the newer students at Hopkins High, Vincent added, “On my third day here, I joined the team.”


For others, though, the dance team is more of a hobby or social club. Kidist Tesfaye joined the team last year. “I like to dance; I have friends on [the team], and it’s a time to all get together,” explained Tesfaye. “We have competition shows that are fun.”


Walker said, “My mom likes the dance team. I was in tap and ballet for two years. She comes to all my events, and she likes that I participate in something [extra curricular]. Dance team is positive to keep me motivated.”


Walker characterized Deeply Royal with warm words: “We hang out in Ms.
Heimlich’s room. It’s a safe place. It’s like a big family. We support each other. We’re there for each other no matter what,” she said.


Heimlich has found that it’s a two-way street. “Coaching this team is my favorite part of the job. I danced in college, took Cuban drums and African drums for the last 20 years” she said. “It’s an outlet; I’ve got to [make dance a part of my life] or I get crazy.”


No matter what priority each member places on dance in his or her life, they all agree that Hopkins High contributes to their future plans. For Vincent, Deeply Royal is a stepping stone to his life goals. “I want to be a worldwide-known choreographer. That’s what I’m going to go to college for,” he said.


“I want to be a pediatrician,” Tesfaye announced. “Dance team is my hobby. It’s a time to get together and have fun dancing,” she said. “I like to work with kids, and I’m a nursing assistant now.”


McDowell laid out his plans with confidence when he described his future: “I want to be the world’s best known green architect.” McDowell has already begun making his dream a reality by working with award-winning Kevin Kennon Architects of New York.


“Hopkins teaches you to not just settle,” said McDowell. “I’ve never seen a student go here and have a teacher say, ‘You can work at McDonald’s or something.’ [Instead, they say,] ‘Go to college.'”


These ambitious goals evolved, in part, from the solid grounding that Hopkins High seeks to create. Stanley Brown, district-wide coordinator of equity and inclusion, said, “Hopkins is one of the first districts to have this position [of equity coordinator]. I’ve been here two years. The position originated because equity was one of Hopkins [High] School’s hallmarks, articulated as one of the school’s values.”


Brown, who is a native of Harlem in New York City, has found that his upbringing has compelled him to pursue the closure of the racial gap. “In everything that we do, we look through the lens of equity,” asserted Brown. “We are creating equal opportunity for all students.”


In spite of the Hopkins school district’s commitment to equity, a gap remains in their faculty with too low a percentage of teachers of color. “It is a concern of ours, but also one that we are actively recruiting [for],” stated Brown. “Everyone’s going to the same pool to recruit. We have started a program to recruit students of color to go on to teaching.”


This program, Elite Academy, is defined on their website as Emerging Leaders in Teaching and Education (ELITE) Academy. “Elite Academy is designed to build a diverse teacher group to meet the needs of Minnesota’s students,” says ELITE’s website.


Brown explained the urgency behind adjusting the racial shift in teachers at Hopkins High. “We need schools that reflect the world. If we have segregated schools that don’t teach the student to go out into a world that is multicultural and multi-global, if indeed schools are about preparing students for the future, then our faculty needs to mirror the world.”


And in its small but crucial way, Deeper Royal is helping Hopkins High toward the goal of racial equity and “closing the opportunity gap,” said Brown.


Vincent affirmed Brown’s views: “Hopkins ain’t nothing like my old school. For me to dance, I’d have had to go into community [education], not in the [public] school. I was at Gary, Indiana, a public high school. [Moving here, I’ve had a] scenery change. Now I think I have a chance.”


For more information on Hopkins schools and the ELITE Academy, visit www.hopkins.k12.mn.us or http://k12jobspot.com/Jobs/?ID=29309.
Susan Budig welcomes reader responses to tomandsusan@juno.com.