'New North' enrollment slow to rise

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2012 - 5:25 AM

North High has a new principal and a turnaround consultant, but the high school that escaped closing needs more freshmen.

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Teacher Tina Schaefer answered questions for Taricka Tolliver during a recent ninth-grade English class at North High School in Minneapolis.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Despite new leadership and a turnaround consultant, Minneapolis North High School is having trouble competing for students in its own back yard.

Only 10 eighth graders chose the school from among 137 living in North's attendance area who submitted choice cards for high school. Another North Side school, Patrick Henry, and Southwest, aided by an integration busing program, outdrew North by better than four to one on its home turf.

That's despite a series of community events promoting North and personal recruiting by new Principal Shawn Harris-Berry.

"As they hear her vision, I think enrollment will increase," area school board member Kim Ellison said.

But only 36 incoming freshman have chosen North so far, including those living in other attendance areas. Ryan Fair, who directs student placement, said he's hoping that as many as 60 students will make up North's first freshman class under the revamped program instituted by Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

Where will those students come from? Fair said that 25 area students who didn't make a school choice were placed by the district at North, and usually some trickle in later. Typically, only about a third of students assigned without a choice actually show up, but Fair said he's hoping that recruiting by Harris-Berry will swell the turnout.

But even 60 freshmen, which would be up from 48 who showed up last fall, is less than the 75 that Johnson once set as a threshold for the revamped school. It's only half of the 100 to 120 per class that Harris-Berry said the school needs.

Johnson urged more than a year and a half ago that North be closed, citing its dwindling enrollment and dismal test results. But she reversed herself inside of a month after an outcry from a community unwilling to let go of a school that graduated its first class 121 years ago. She pledged instead to phase out the current North program as classes graduate, replacing it with a "new North."

The turnaround is being guided by the Institute for Student Achievement, a New York-based consultant that Harris-Berry said will coach her and train staff in seven best-practice principles it has used at schools in five other states. North has styled itself an Academy of Arts and Communication, with an emphasis on writing skills, and Harris-Berry said its small size will give students more support than larger high schools. Each freshman will get an iPad.

Since switching from Whittier International Elementary on March 1, Harris-Berry has joined other staffers to recruit at the neighborhood's Cub Foods, charter schools and school fairs. On Saturday, she'll join students, staff, and alumni in knocking on doors to welcome both students who elected North and those assigned to it.

But the numbers so far indicate it's an uphill struggle, one she attributes to a lingering misconception that North would close. She's appeared multiple times on North Side-based KMOJ and KBEM radio to try to dispel that.

Fair noted that North area students face other pulls. For example, one district integration program buses low-income North Side students to highly rated Southwest. Henry, which shares with Southwest the advantage of an established International Baccalaureate program, has a reputation for rigor and success. Some students choose Edison because it's perceived as being in a safer area.

Ellison hopes the school board will give the changes at North two or three years to take hold.

"There's this fear of the unknown. People are not sure yet," she said.

Two community figures urged that the district be patient on enrollment growth.

"Very few businesses start up out of the gate at a profit. You've got to build up brand and market share," said Louis King, a former school board member who runs the North Side vocational school Summit Academy OIC.

Brett Buckner, a 1990 alum and a member of the committee that advised the school on the new program, agreed.

"What's going to take place is a slow growth, and in the next three to four years we'll get up to those numbers again," he said.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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