“What are the needs of the future generation? They need academics, but they are going to have to be able to communicate in this world,” Bussman explained.
Staff members realized that more interesting, relevant courses also solved many of the behavior problems.
For children needing extra help, the school offers remedial math and reading classes in place of electives.
Since the changes were rolled out, enrollment at the middle school has climbed by 30 percent to 653 students.
The engineering class in particular has sparked interest among students and parents. About half the students elect to take it. It’s hands-on. Students are given a real-life engineering problem including building a chair or designing a future city. They brainstorm, design, build and present their results.
“I give them a challenge. It’s filled with math and science,” said teacher Angel Brown. “They are problem-solvers now. Before they were killing time.”
At a recent class, two small groups of eighth-graders showed off their assignments. They had designed futuristic cities that use emerging technologies to address power sources and water management. Both groups won honors at the state future city competition.
Across the hall, students were learning some new moves in a dance class.
“Wave to grandma. Wave to grandma. Drive the car,” called out dance teacher Molly Maher, playfully describing each move.
Changes also occurred at other grade levels. The superintendent restarted the elementary band program. All 230 fifth-graders now play in the band. Kelly received the 2012 VH1 Save The Music Foundation Award for her efforts to bring music back to schools. The cable TV music network paid for the instruments.
District officials say they want to increase enrollment so they can continue to improve course offerings and programs. Still, they know it will take time to change perceptions.
“Reputations die hard,” Halabi said.
Columbia Heights native Scott Ocel and his wife pulled their two daughters from a Columbia Heights elementary school and open enrolled in the Mounds View district a few years ago.
“I am fourth generation in the city. My kids would be fifth generation. Making the decision to move our kids out of district wasn’t easy or one we relished,” Ocel said.
He worried that with the influx of Minneapolis students, the district was starting to skew more low-income. He said families in the middle get left behind.
“That takes a significant chunk of resources and moves the district in a different direction,” Ocel said. “So many resources are peeled away. Our kids in the middle just get passed along as long as they are performing at grade level.”
Still, it’s an uncomfortable subject, so the Ocels are not sure they’ll be filling out their survey.