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A school's marquee often announces accomplishments, celebrates success, foreshadows the future.
The sign in front of the school on James Avenue in north Minneapolis reveals something different: a struggle for survival.
"North High is not closing."
A year after the city's oldest high school narrowly escaped closure, a New York-based school turnaround firm with a record of success stretching from Houston to the Bronx has begun work at North High School.
For the Institute for Student Achievement, it's the first attempt at rejuvenating a school in Minnesota. For Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, spending $155,000 to bring the Institute to North continues her own turnaround from last fall, when she said she would close the smallest of the district's seven high schools.
But as the work begins, North is still recovering from a year of uncertainty that left morale, enrollment and academics bruised.
"Things are better than last year," said Principal Peter Christensen. "The school was in critical condition."
The recovery is far from complete, though.
North's state test scores have plumbed the depths of poor performance, ranking in the bottom 1 percent of schools statewide. In reading and math, the school had the second worst results of any traditional high school in the state, save Red Lake High in northern Minnesota.
In recent years, tests scores slid, principals came and went and popular academic programs vanished.
Enrollment has dipped to 225 this fall, down from last year's peak of 265 students. More than 90 percent of the students live in poverty.
"[North] needs intensive help to turn around," said Dave Heistad, director of research, evaluation and assessment for the Minneapolis schools. "It's hard to know how much time it will take."
Fighting for the future
The Institute for Student Achievement has helped resuscitate flat-lining schools in several urban districts. In Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Detroit, Houston and New York, the organization helped districts establish 500-student theme schools that focus on topics such as business, health sciences, technology or fine arts. In some places, multiple schools operate on one campus.
During a community forum at North High on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., an advisory group of parents, alumni and neighborhood supporters will present its theme proposal: a communications and arts magnet school that would take advantage of North's in-house radio and television stations.
If approved by the superintendent and school board, the program would open to 120 freshmen next fall, adding a grade each year.
Noticeable improvement could take three to five years, said Vincent Brevetti, the institute's senior director for program management.
To get a head start on the change, administrators have already shuffled North's teaching staff; 42 percent of the instructors are new to the school this fall.
Through the first month of class, student suspensions and discipline problems have declined, said Mark Bonine, Minneapolis' associate superintendent for turnaround schools.
With the district committed to saving North High, work is underway to recruit mentors for each of North's 40-plus ninth graders to follow them through graduation.
"[Last year] we were in survival mode," said assistant principal Carly Jarva. "There's hope now."
Enrollment still an issue
Last year, enrollment at North nose-dived to levels unseen in more than a century and poor test scores left the school facing mandatory restructuring under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
In October 2010, Johnson said she would close the school because the dwindling enrollment and performance couldn't justify the expense. But after a public outcry, Johnson said North could stay open if parents enrolled at least 75 freshmen this fall to maintain a ninth grade class.
Enrollment fell short of that number, but by May, Johnson had backed off that requirement and said North would stay open.
Still, the superintendent's vacillation on North's fate left supporters working overtime to shut down the rumor mill predicting the school's demise and short of their goals.
North's lack of an attendance boundary compounded problems with attracting students. Even students who live nearby are shuttled to Edison or Henry high schools unless they choose North.
The policy fuels criticism and ridicule of North: students from other city schools often joke that no one wants to go to North anyway, said Hanifah Abdul-Wahid, the senior class president.
"The perception ... is unfair," Abdul-Wahid said. "It's been really rough."
The district is addressing that concern. Part of a districtwide plan to deal with shifting enrollment would funnel students from two K-8 schools, Nellie Stone Johnson and Lucy Craft Laney, to North. The schools currently feed Henry.
The school's enrollment also remains a financial concern for the district. With so few students in one of its largest buildings, the district estimated this spring that the per-student cost of operating North could be roughly $13,100, compared to the district average of $8,762 per student. Seven miles away at Southwest High, consistently ranked among the state's best schools, eight times as many students are crammed into a smaller building.
For Kale Severson, a 2001 graduate and president of the North High School Alumni Association, the investment in North is worth it.
Inside the school, up the hall from a trophy case with honors celebrating the school's 123-year history, another sign hangs on a door: "Polar Pride Can't Be Denied."
Despite the recent struggles, it still rings true. Severson expects his alma mater to live on for another 123 years.
"They have a diamond in the rough here," he said.
Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491