Despite having the lowest enrollment of the seven city public high schools, North High School is slowly but surely emerging as leaner and better, asserts the school’s leadership and faculty.
North Principal Ellen Stewart quickly dismisses any claims that the school soon will be history. The low numbers – North’s enrollment is approximately 500 students in grades 9-12 – is the result of the closing of several nearby elementary and middle schools, she notes.
“When people started seeing the decline in enrollment, the next logical explanation was that North is closing,” explains Stewart. “When Franklin and Lincoln were our two main feeder schools, the consequences of those closings were that we didn’t have that stream of [students] coming right into North.
But why [those schools] were closing is because on the North Side, there weren’t students going to school over here for whatever reason. The population [has] just dwindled.”
Nonetheless Stewart, a 1985 North graduate, wasn’t about to let her school slowly disappear without a fight after she was named its principal in 2007.
“Considering the challenges that we have, we look at how we [can] exist and how we can define ourselves,” she surmises. “We went to [being] a small specialty school…we just didn’t have the number of kids.”
Therefore, North’s current enrollment is ideal, claims Stewart. “The Harvard School of Education says that’s a good number for high schools in ensuring success for students,” she points out. Still, Stewart, the school faculty, as well as the North students, are fully aware of North’s “low achievement” reputation in the community.
First-year English teacher Tina Schaefer says, “The misconceptions that people have about this high school are that these kids are dropouts, a bunch of teen moms and never going to make it. The unfortunate thing about that is the kids hear those things and then they believe them to be true. That stops them from moving forward.
“When I hear them [repeating] those negative comments, I always stop them and really make them critically think about what they are saying,” she continues. “[I ask them] ‘Do you really believe that about yourself?’ When they stop and really think about it, they don’t think that about themselves.”
This is her first full-time teaching job, says Schaefer, a 2007 graduate of Metro State University’s urban teaching program. A Denver native, she moved to the Twin Cities nine years ago. A lifelong inner-city resident, Schaefer says teaching at an urban school was her goal. “The students are amazing, and I really want to see them be successful because I care about them,” she says excitedly. “These kids are bright and intelligent, and maybe those test scores aren’t going to demonstrate that, but spend a day with these kids and see what they are about.”
North will become an International Baccalaureate (IB) school beginning this fall, Stewart announced to staff and students last week. The IB certification was the result of a national application process, she says.
“We had to go through at least a year’s process of writing curriculum, doing site visits and making sure that our school is a site that can have IB curriculum.”
The IB website, at www.ibo.org, describes the program as “a continuum of high-quality education that encourages international-mindedness and a positive attitude to learning.” Brian Vats-Fournier, who has been at North for five years, will serve as the school’s IB Career Certificate (IBCC) coordinator.
“This year’s sophomores will be the first students to have the opportunity to take all seven of the courses that it will take to get the full diploma,” Vats-Fournier says. “We already have about 30 kids who made the verbal commitment so far, and we are going to see if we can add a few more to those totals.”
“We are one of 12 schools in the world that has this pilot program,” boasts Stewart. Beginning next fall, all ninth and 10th grade students will be primarily enrolled in math and science courses, along with other required classes; 11th and 12 graders will be taking IB classes. But according to Stewart, “All students will take IB courses at North.”
The IB program “in itself presents a challenge and a paradigm shift for people because I hear, ‘Can they [the students] really do IB?'” Stewart admits. “Now, will every kid excel at the same rate or catch on at the same rate? No, but that’s what education is, a variety of paces to do that. But when you put the expectation out there that this is where we are going, kids rise to the expectation put in front of them.”
Furthermore, the principal says, “Shedding that myth of low expectations at North High School is our charge. I would not push forward an agenda like the IB curriculum unless I didn’t believe that our kids could do it. But they can.”
In addition to IB at North, there also will be Dunwoody Academy, a charter school for grades 9-12 (they moved into the building last September), adult basic education and a program for teenage mothers – four schools all operating within one building – beginning this fall.
“Is it going to be a challenge? Ah-ha,” she says. “There will be a challenge about space, perceptions and safety, because we will have babies and older adults in here somewhere in the building.” Other challenges include making it clear where each program is located within the building.
However, Stewart quickly warns against those who simply sees North as “a complex of second-rate students – students who couldn’t make it anywhere else.
But the way we are looking at it is that in every one of these programs, their intention is to get students to be college-ready. But if we are truly a community school, we need to look at embracing all of our students, no matter what kind of things that happened to them in their life. That they still have an opportunity to have a high school experience.”
Finally, North Community High School is alive and well.
“North is smaller – it’s not the 2,000 students that it was in the past,” concludes Stewart. “We are not a comprehensive high school anymore, but that’s OK. This is North High School.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.