The Northeast Middle School achievements


The principal and staff at Northeast Middle School (NEMS) say that students’ recent achievements have everybody nearly bursting with pride. The list includes first and second place winners in a state-wide Martin Luther King essay contest, and five awards in the 2009 Robotics Tournament, including the top 6th grade overall award.

The school—which is in its first year of its new International Baccalaureate program—has big plans for the future, too, with March 26 and 27 performances of a 50-student musical, “Once Upon an Island,” and as host for a new district-wide Saturday Academy, which starts in February and is sponsored by Minneapolis Public Schools, Cargill and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

The essays

Eighth graders Joanne Nicole Collins and Emily Anderson, students in a language arts class taught by Stephanie Gwin, took first and second place in an essay contest sponsored by the 2009 Minnesota Governor’s Commission on the Statewide Celebration of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.

The essay topic was “Education: American Dream or Public Crisis?” Both wrote that education was in crisis. Collins, who grew up in Kenya, said there is “still a lot of classism” in American education, and that the system doesn’t take different learning styles and past experiences into consideration. Anderson said that in her essay, she wrote that “test scores were not exactly what Martin Luther King wanted. We should be judged for ourselves, and not by our test scores.”

(Principal Padmini Udupa said that students take at least five standardized state and district tests during the school year, including interest inventories and science, math and reading tests.)

Collins said that Gwin assigned the 400-word essay to all students, but it was optional whether they wanted it entered into competition or not. They both entered, Collins said, because “Even if you didn’t expect to win, you never know. It was about a month before we heard back. My mom was so excited that I won.”

The girls and their families attended an awards ceremony at Concordia University (the contest was co-sponsored by Concordia and Hamline Universities, as well as some business sponsors).” There were first, second and third award winners at each middle school level, sixth through eighth grades. Collins won a Gateway computer and Anderson won $50. They said they didn’t have to read their essays at the ceremony.

“We had our three minutes of fame and they took our pictures,” Anderson said.

They also had an unexpected thrill after the contest: a personal phone call from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s niece, Alveda King. King, an author and political activist, is a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives.

“She told us to keep our heads strong and follow our dreams,” Collins said. Northeast Middle School Education Assistant Ann Marie Cosgrove, a friend of King’s, arranged the call; the girls took it in the school office on a speaker phone.

Alyson Westerhause is another school award winner, who recently won the school’s spelling bee. She went on to the district bee, she added, but was eliminated in the seventh round, when there were seven people left.

“I missed the word ‘anchovy,’” she said. “Spelling bees are hard; it’s the luck of the draw which word you get. You might get something really easy or something else you’ve never heard of. You can’t read the whole dictionary to get ready for them. I think what they’re trying to do [with a spelling bee] is if you get a word wrong, you’ll probably always spell it right after that. My parents say I won because I read so much that I have a higher vocabulary.”

She said she often checks out a variety of books at the Northeast Community Library. What kind of books? “Whatever sounds good,” she said.

Collins said she too is an avid reader. “I like anything where there’s a false reality.” Anderson said she prefers Christian teen books and Bible-related books.


Math teacher Katie Maier said the school’s sixth graders won five awards, two for teamwork, one for programming, one for design, and one team overall in the 2009 Robotics Tournament. “We’ve been meeting two days a week after school since October. They have to build a robot to complete as many missions as it can in two and a half minutes. The theme this year was related to climate and global warming.”

One of the programs, she said, involved the robot taking a small plastic polar bear across a table to the “ice cap.” Students put a plastic scoop on the front of the robot (which is about a foot high and a foot wide) to carry the polar bear. If the bear stays upright, it’s worth more points. If it falls over in transit, it is considered “sleeping,” and the team gets five fewer points.

Another program called for a robot to raise a house in a flood plain out of the water.

Julie Blue, a co-founder of the GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Math and Science), and GISE (Guys in Science and Engineering) organizations—which sponsor the robotics tournaments—said about 400 people attended the January 17 and 18 event. Students from 16 schools, including Northeast’s Sheridan and Pillsbury schools and North Minneapolis’ Nellie Stone Johnson and Jenny Lind schools, took part in the contest.

NEMS students Jose Riera, Christopher Lituma and Avery Craves were on the winning Guy Bots team, which took the overall prize.

The musical

Dudley Voigt, a teacher with Minneapolis Public Schools Arts for Academic Achievement program, works in NEMS classrooms with the goal of using art to meet an academic goal. “I partner with teachers. What’s unique about this school is the number of people who come into the building to help and work and visit. It has a culture where they don’t lock the doors and we’re all just shut in here. This school is a part of our community.” Voigt is directing “Once Upon an Island,” which is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid.” She said it is a “Caribbean adaptation” of the story, and the main character is not a mermaid. “It was adapted from Rosa Guy’s book, My Love, My Love, based on the Andersen tale.”

Saturday Academy

Teacher Kimberlee Adams is coordinating the Saturday Academy—which offers American history courses—at NEMS. Class choices include The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, American History in Film and Cinema, The Dakota Conflict, Discovering World War II, and ACT Test Prep.

Students rank the classes in order of preference; they will be enrolled in two of their choices. The classes run six weekends from 9 a.m. to noon, are free and are open to Minneapolis students in grades 6 through 12. Registration is due Jan. 28. Adams said they are expecting about 150 students. For information, call Adams, 612-668-1483 or e-mail

Udupa said she is very grateful to the community for its support. “Without their help, we wouldn’t be able to do all these things.” The school has about 490 students, she said.