Is North Community High School slowly disappearing before our eyes?
As earlier reported in the MSR (April 1), the longtime high school’s building will now also house three additional programs, beginning with the 2010-11 school year: Dunwoody Academy (a grades 9-12 charter school), adult basic education, and a school for teenage mothers.
These programs will join “a smaller North High,” announced Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) Assistant Superintendent Brenda Cassellius during a May 18 meeting packed with students, parents, and others at the school’s auditorium.
The building can hold 2,000 students, but North’s enrollment is currently around 500 students and has been dwindling for several years now, added MPS Community Director Jackie Turner, also present at the meeting. “The cost to operate this building is $2.5 million [annually],” she estimated. “We are in a financial crisis,” and adding more students, albeit not North students, will bring the building closer to capacity, claimed Turner.
Last week’s meeting originally was planned by MPS officials to formally unveil the changes planned for North. However, “We didn’t accomplish our goal to really letting the community know exactly what is going on,” Turner said afterwards. “We came here with the intention to explaining [the plans for North], but I think the need to be flexible and allow the community to vent actually was more important.”
“I don’t think they [MPS officials] expected the meeting to go as it did tonight,” said Rev. Effem Smith. He was among the majority at the meeting who strongly objected to the planned changes.
“I think there was an assumption that they didn’t have to deal with a lot of tension and anger about what already has been decided about North High School building,” said Smith.
“We are angry and upset, and we don’t know what else to do,” said North 10th grader Saudah Muhammad. “I feel like our voices, and what we are saying, aren’t being heard. They already made their decision, and we just have to roll with it.”
Some charged that the district has systematically excluded North from its student recruiting campaigns and eventually will close the school permanently.
“It is already done… They [the school board] already made a decision,” predicted a woman in the audience.
“What is the district doing to support [North]?” asked a parent who said that her daughter is a sophomore there.
“I want answers…not the ones you think will happen, or that you guys want to happen,” a North female student told the officials. “I’d like to know what you are saying is true, because there is too much disorganization going on.”
But Turner and Cassellius both quickly disputed this charge: “North is on every citywide brochure [that] went to every eighth grader,” said Turner.
“There are no plans to close North High,” said Cassellius, saying that despite having the lowest enrollment of the seven Minneapolis high schools, “North actually does get more dollars per student than any other high school,” she claimed.
Nonetheless, nothing was said last week that convinced the audience to believe otherwise, especially several North students.
“I don’t want to be here with pregnant women and adults,” said a female student who does not like the idea of having a teenage mothers program in the same building beginning this fall.
“Our school is no longer a high school but a community center,” complained another student.
The students also expressed their feelings about current North Principal Ellen Stewart, who will be leaving in June and is popular among the students. “Why didn’t you ask the student body?” a female student inquired about Stewart’s departure. “Does the [school] board have any empathy for North?”
“I understand their pain because of the ambiguity and the uncertainty,” noted the principal, who has been at North since 2007. On the expressed public support, she said, “I am glad that the students know that I do care about them beyond them just being students or being a number.”
After the meeting, North 12th grader Diamond Billinger told MSR, “I felt like I got my point across, but I felt like they didn’t answer my question: Why is adult ed and other schools being brought into North High School?” She and others objected to the school now being called “North Complex.”
Muhammad also questioned how adding three separate programs inside North will benefit her and her schoolmates. “For me, I don’t think it does,” she surmised.
“Pushing us as North Community High School into a corner [of the building] with three other schools is not healthy.” She also complained that North students and parents “are just now finding out” about the decisions.
MPS Associate Superintendent Erin Glynn agreed that perhaps the community, North students and parents should have been informed sooner about the North changes. “The community need to be more involved, and we [as district officials] need to be more connected,” she said.
Turner said that “it is a delicate balance” to determine just how much community input there can be regarding school decisions. “I think communities can help influence, support, and provide input and feedback, but some decisions actually need to be made administratively. We are a school district, and we need to be able to [make] decisions efficiently, and sometimes that conflicts with people’s emotions.”
“They are not understanding what we [as North students] are going through,” said 10th grader Azia Jacobs, who heard about the district’s decision about two weeks ago. “The changes they are making at North High School are making people leave. We want to be a high school and not share space with different schools.
“Why did they have to choose North?” Jacobs wondered. “We want to be just North, not North Complex, Dunwoody or the Broadway [teen mothers program].”
As did others, Rev. Smith left the meeting still convinced that North High may soon be closed. “I think some of the issues that can be helpful to North increasing enrollment aren’t being done,” he said. “I didn’t feel like that was answered tonight.”
Stewart, who will be an assistant principal at Southwest this fall, said her primary role now until school ends on June 9 is multifaceted, including being “a conduit between the district and the community” and influencing how the “emotional energy” is being handled by North students.
Cassellius believes that no matter what she and other MPS officials say, the “North is closing” rumors will continue to exist. “They swell [in the community] every year,” she said. “Every year we come out and reaffirm our commitment.”
She said she understands and appreciates the audience’s passion. “This is a really strong community, and they deserve to have a voice.”
However, Cassellius didn’t rule out the school board later reexamining all schools, including North High. “These are difficult decisions for us. I wish we had all the money in the world to do everything we want to do for kids.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.