New principal and staff must remake the school while competing with a nearby charter school that has a similar mission.
Two years after it threatened to close North High School, the Minneapolis school district has poured money and effort into making the revamped school a success -- with mixed results so far.
Competing for students with a new college-prep charter high school less than half a mile away, North's new academy attracted only 65 freshmen for a school model designed for at least 100 students per class.
Those enrolled occupy just one wing of a sprawling building built for 1,700. Fewer than 200 holdover students in older grades, dubbed the Senior Academy, go to class in another part of the building.
The district is paying a consultant $155,000 to help turn around the school as well as covering the roughly $200,000 cost of smaller class sizes.
The small scale of the new arts and communication academy has created an undeniable bond among students, teachers and Shawn Harris-Berry, who is in her first stint as a high school principal.
"It really feels like a small town tucked in north Minneapolis," said Heather Kraabel, who teaches a radio class.
It was a long haul to get this far. Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson proposed closing North in 2010 because of falling enrollment and dismal academic results. Later, she set an enrollment threshold for the 2011 freshman class that the school missed by a wide mark, although she later relented on that requirement, as well.
With a 123-year history, North had tradition and a loyal corps of alumni on its side, and Johnson hired the Institute for Student Achievement, a New York-based school turnaround consultant that helped the district and a community committee design a small-school model. Johnson brought in Harris-Berry, principal of Whittier Elementary, six months ahead of when the academy opened to recruit students and hire faculty members.
Drawn to new approach
One of the new North students, Anisah Clark, has deep family connections to the school, including her mother, Kamillah El-Amin, and four aunts and uncles, two of whom played basketball. Anisah's older brother went there.
But North wasn't even on her mother's radar as an option for Anisah. Although the family lives less than a mile away, Anisah went to suburban elementary and middle schools, and there was all that publicity about North potentially closing. But daughter persuaded mother.
"She really wanted to try something new. She's someone who wants to be on the cutting edge. She did the research," El-Amin said.
Anisah testifies to the closeness the entering class has found with teachers. "The better your relationship with your teachers, the more you understand things," she said.
"I can breathe better," said another student, Shirley McDowell, describing the contrast from Southwest High School, which she attended briefly this fall and found so crowded that some students sat on the floor.
A South Sider, McDowell can attend North because students citywide may choose the school. The teachers whom Harris-Berry recruited also come from all over.
Social studies teacher Tom Lachermeier was at Roosevelt High School. "I loved Roosevelt, but I live four blocks from here and I couldn't pass up teaching the kids in my community," he said.
Math teacher Allysa Hanson, a Minneapolis schools product, taught at Eagan High School. She said Harris-Berry impressed her and she was intrigued by the possibilities of rebuilding a school. Her co-teacher, Warsame Warsame, is a Roosevelt grad who came with Harris-Berry from Whittier.
Teachers go beyond academics. They meet twice daily with eight to 10 students to keep tabs on their academic, social and emotional progress.
"I think of the first day of school when I met our students," Hanson said. "I thought, 'Every one of you kids can make it to college.' I don't look at the statistics. I look at the individual students."
North has no way to go but up academically, based on state testing. Eight percent of students tested proficient in math and 27 percent did so for reading in 2012 state tests.
It's Harris-Berry's job to change that. It's her first time as a high school principal. But the mother of twins who themselves graduated from city schools in 2010 said that the freshman class isn't much different from eighth-graders in middle schools, where she's spent much of her career. She gets help from two mentors provided by the Institute for Student Achievement, one for professional development and one a mentor.
Instead of bells to mark the start and end of classes, teachers get a beep on their computers, and Harris-Berry spends passing time in the hallways making sure in her playground voice that students keep moving.
She said her job is to remove barriers to learning. When one mom couldn't get time off a new job to confer, Harris-Berry offered to drive to her workplace parking lot. She drove home another student to exchange her slippers for regular shoes so the student could take part in a biology lab. "When you know them better, you deal with them differently," Harris-Berry said.
The arts and communication focus builds on North's magnet school history. The school already houses the district's radio station, where older students share announcing duties, and a dance studio spacious enough for games of dodgeball.
The arts focus will sharpen this month when 75 minutes are added to the school day for arts skills; coaches have agreed to delay practices until 4:15 p.m., which also lets older students work on making up missed credits.
What lies ahead
The new North is still a work in progress. All students check out iPads for the day, but individual adult mentors have yet to materialize.
If North succeeds in reaching the target of 500 ninth- through 12th-graders, there's talk of opening another small academy, possibly tech-oriented, in the building. If it fails, the school with a storied past could once again face closing.
Associate Superintendent Mark Bonine, who said he's confident the school will succeed, said North should get at least the time to fill all grades before that decision is made.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: Brandtstrib