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Students who used to self-segregate in the school cafeteria sit at the same tables now, joking and laughing. After school, in the lecture hall down the hallway, minority students and teachers are deep in discussion about race, class, culture and academics.
Four years after a surge of racial diversity erupted into fistfights and emotional faculty meetings, Woodbury High School is a very different place. Students and teachers are chalking it up to "Be the Dream," an after-school student-teacher group that tackles head-on issues of race and the achievement gap that have left minority students lagging white students in test scores for years. In Minnesota, the gap is one of the widest in the nation.
The progress in Woodbury goes far beyond lunchtime banter. In 2009, 72 percent of Woodbury's black students were proficient in reading. By 2011, 85 percent were -- higher than both the district and state averages. Minority students are shouldering leadership roles in student government and sports clubs.
"We've established relationships with teachers who we can now call our allies," said Lauren Coleman, an 18-year-old black senior.
Around the metro area and the nation, schools are forming race-specific groups to break through to some of the hardest-to-reach students.
By focusing on black or Asian or Hispanic kids, educators say, they can chip away at the alienation that keeps students of color from succeeding in school.
With the help of Minnesota's three integration districts, high schools from Eden Prairie to North St. Paul are starting similar groups.
"Culture plays a high role in schools. You can't get away from it," said Tasha Lebow, former president of the National Association for Multicultural Education.
The move has come with some controversy, Lebow said.
Teachers have stormed out of cultural proficiency training sessions, claiming they're being labeled racist. In recent years, states have cut funding to programs framed more around race and less around poverty.
But the tough conversations at Woodbury High that fueled the academic turnaround are "a pivotal piece of the puzzle of closing the achievement gap," said assistant principal Ginger Garski.
The view from Woodbury
Woodbury High School has a reputation for high academic standards.
More than 92 percent of its students go on to college, and the school has been recognized for its high enrollment in honors and advanced-placement courses. Its reading and math scores consistently land in the top 20 in the state.
About a decade ago, Asian and black students began moving into the district. Minority enrollment rose from 13 percent in 2003 to almost 25 percent now.
The new students brought values and experiences that challenged the school's majority white teachers and administrators, Garski said.
"Our teachers didn't have the skills to relate to students of color," Garski said. "It's hard to realize as a white person what it's like to be a minority. There's something in being grounded and being around people who look like you."
Friction arose early and often. Students divided along ethnic lines in the cafeteria, in the classroom and in the halls.
In 2008, a hallway scuffle broke out between African-American and African students when African students wore their traditional garb to school on a school spirit day.
Another time, Garski witnessed a white teacher telling a group of black students, "You people need to settle down."
Most troubling to administrators were the test scores. They showed white students performed far better than minority students on state tests. In 2008, only 20 percent of black students were proficient in math, compared with 51 percent of white students.
In 2009, at the advice of an outside consultant, administrators started an after-school program called "Be the Dream" to improve the relationship between teachers and minority students.
Twice a week minority students meet with a core group of teachers to tell them about their lives, their goals and examples of alienation from the mainstream of Woodbury High. Teachers and administrators have listened. Things have gotten better. To break down the self-segregation, some teachers started grouping students from different races together for class projects.
The school offered "cultural competency" training to help teachers assess their own biases and stereotypes.
Students got homework help after school and information about electives, advanced placement and honors programs that they weren't getting before.
"We're being intentional about making our students successful," Garski said. "It's not going to happen on its own."
Last year, 50 percent of black students were proficient in math, compared with 83 percent of white students -- a big improvement for both groups.
The school spends around $15,000 a year on the group, which includes about 50 students.
Connections being made
One recent day after school, dozens of minority students waded through the hallways toward the school's lecture hall where "Be the Dream" meets.
Melvin Efesoa, a 17-year-old senior, wrapped his arms around social studies teacher Harryet Freeman.
Last year, Melvin had "hit a moment of stress." He was having trouble balancing his social life, school and sports. His grades were slipping and the ACT, a test he saw as determining his future, was right around the corner.
Freeman, who had gotten to know Melvin through "Be the Dream," could see it on his face. She asked Melvin to stay after class and talk. He told her everything. She listened, set him up with tutoring and counseled him about handling academic stress.
"She's kind of like a mom to me," Melvin said.
Those success stories, plus the academic gains, have administrators looking into making the group a regular school-day course this fall to get more students involved.
There's still work to do. That day's session featured a 30-minute presentation by the school's engineering teacher about a set of advanced engineering courses Woodbury began offering a few years ago.
"I didn't even know this school had an engineering program," Joshua Alexis, a shy 16-year-old, said afterward. "I've always wanted to be an engineer."
The word got out and a week later Alison Malmgren, another 16-year-old, joined the school's robotics team.
"We need to win back the trust of our students of color," Garski said. "When kids feel like they matter, everything changes."
Daarel Burnette II • 651-925-5032 Twitter: @DaarelStrib