Angry, sad over North High's decline

The pride of the North Side isn't what it was, supporters say, but they're still shocked the school is likely to close.

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“It’s sad,” said Charisma Ward outside North High. The senior is a cheerleader who plans to go to college. Tatyana Grahm, right, is a junior.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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With her eight-piece shrimp meal still hot from the fryer, Brittany Johnson sat at El-Amin's Fish House in north Minneapolis, shaking her head.

The 2003 North High School graduate pulled back a few loose strands of hair, cleared her throat and wondered aloud.

"Why are they shutting North down?" she asked. "How did it get to this?"

Days after Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson announced her recommendation to close North High, many alumni and North Side residents are asking a similar question: How did a once proud, robust high school fall on such hard times?

"I was blown away. The tradition ..." Johnson said, pausing to think. "You have a lot of people who have been a part of North High."

Where supporters see tradition, Superintendent Johnson sees a drain on resources: Fewer than 300 traditional students attend the school built for 1,900.

"I get the nostalgia, but I also know that it's not the North High that's there today," said the superintendent, who has relatives who graduated from North and worked there. "We have to reconcile that in our head."

North's freshman class has little more than 40 students; enrollment has dropped nearly 80 percent since 2005.

The building, a depot of sorts, also houses a charter school, adult education classes and a high school for teenage mothers just to fill up space.

That's a far cry from the way things used to be, alumni say.

Back when Jack Moskowitz attended North in the late 1950s, there were 600 students or more in his graduating class; the school drew students from the city's North Side as well as from Brooklyn Center and beyond.

The city's oldest high school was an important institution for both the black and Jewish communities, and played a key role in promoting integration in Minneapolis.

"It's such a shame that they have to close that school because it has such a rich tradition," said Moskowitz, who taught at his alma mater for 20 years.

"It shaped my whole life."

Since the news broke that district leaders want to close the school, he's been flooded with e-mails and phone calls from other alums and former teachers outraged and saddened by the news. Some of them will host a rally outside district headquarters Tuesday to protest.

District 'on the hook'

Many question whether school district leaders did enough to stem the loss of students.

"The district needs to be on the hook for explaining how it went from 1800 to 300 or whatever it is now," said Louis King, a former Minneapolis school board member and CEO of Summit Academy OIC in north Minneapolis. "How is it that that occurred? To what extent was it based on internal policy decisions, such as closing down the feeder schools and diverting those children, and to what extent was it other reasons -- either choice or the impact of the foreclosure tsunami on that community?"

If the school closes, the community will suffer, Moskowitz predicted.

"To lose that is like putting another dagger in the back of what's going on on the North Side," he said.

Senior Tishyra Powell, 17, stood outside the school Monday, laughing and joking with friends, but worried about the future of North. There's a chance the 17-year-old could be in North's last graduating class.

"It's sad; They're just trying to shut us down slowly," Powell said. "We're willing to do whatever we can to help."

Superintendent Johnson's proposal calls for closing North in 2014, which would allow the current freshmen to graduate, but that carries a big if. She'll move to shut it down earlier if enrollment continues to plummet.

'It was ours'

The future of North High was a hot topic at The Bean Scene coffee shop on West Broadway Avenue, said co-owner Lynda Baker.

"So many of us have physical and emotional attachments to the school; it's depressing," Baker said.

Those ties have waned in recent years, as families have left north Minneapolis schools to explore options elsewhere. Charter schools and suburban districts have benefited from the quest for choice, leaving the dwindling North faithful with few options.

The school, an anchor in north Minneapolis for more than a century, represents more than just a building, Baker said.

"It was ours," she said. "If they take that away, we don't have anything."

When Brittany Johnson, a former North basketball star, went to lift weights there last month, the building was so quiet she assumed students had the day off. They didn't.

As Johnson settled into the conversation at El-Amin's Fish House, she began to answer her own questions about North.

A white placard that read "We Support North High School" hung in the restaurant's window.

"It ain't nothing like it used to be," she said ruefully. "There's nothing at North now."

corey.mitchell@startribune.com • 612-673-4491 ashah@startribune.com • 612-673-4488

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