Humboldt schools to team up for success

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 2, 2008 - 10:04 PM

The aim is for the high school to boost the struggling junior high through a joint environmental science and career prep program.

The fortunes of St. Paul Humboldt High School have been inching up. Enrollment is climbing. Teachers and administrators are reconnecting with the nearby West Side community.

So it made sense to school and school district officials that struggling Humboldt Junior High, attached to the high school, should join that improvement. The result is an evolving plan to create an environmental science and career training program that will give students in grades 7-12 the kinds of tangible life and college skills they'll need to succeed.

Mike Sodomka, principal of the high school, said Humboldt will become the school to go to for students interested in a career working with the environment and who also want the benefits of a small-school setting where the adults truly know the students.

"It's about more than just preparing students for college classes," Sodomka said. "It's about giving them study skills, life skills, teaching them how to interview for a job, to look an adult in the eye when they talk to them. It's about how to really be successful."

School known for have-nots

Until now, the Humboldt complex has been known primarily for what it isn't. It isn't big -- just 830 students but rising in the high school and about 370 and falling in the junior high. It's not particularly popular -- most West Side kids go to other schools in St. Paul and the suburbs. And it hasn't had a clear identity -- many different programs have worked their way through the school over the years.

Things have recently been changing for the better at the high school, as Sodomka and his staff have aggressively reached out to community groups and longtime business partners to create enthusiasm and increase enrollment. A new synthetic-turf athletic field and stadium have boosted community pride and student interest.

Junior high in jeopardy

But the junior high school continues to lose kids. And poor test scores have put the school into corrective action under No Child Left Behind, meaning it needs to turn things around quickly.

One idea, discussed in the Humboldt community for several years, is to have the two schools -- their curriculum, staff members and students -- more closely aligned to create a more comprehensive program. The idea is that seventh- and eighth-graders would have more choices and greater options if the junior high could tap into what the high school has to offer -- and vice versa. Music, art and language programs could get a boost by combining two smaller schools into a bigger secondary complex, school and district officials said.

The challenges of Humboldt -- its enrollment, test scores, and up-and-down reputation -- have vexed the district and the community for years. But Peter Christensen, executive director of Secondary Education for the St. Paul Public Schools, said this effort has the potential to boost both schools' fortunes.

"This process has been inclusive and thorough as possible," he said. "We are excited about bringing new dynamic offerings to the students and community of Humboldt. We want to increase enrollment and close the gap, and we think we can find the way to do that."

While many of the particulars are evolving -- and much work remains to be done before the end of the school year -- what has emerged is a six-year program that would allow students to prepare for either college or technical education with a focus on environmental studies and "green" technology.

For instance, the auto shop program at the high school could begin focusing on creating and maintaining high mileage or alternative fuel engines. The greenhouse at the junior high, long unused, could be renovated to give the entire complex an environmental laboratory.

At the same time, this small school would offer students lessons in life preparation, from balancing a checkbook to job interview skills.

"What we still need to work on is really brainstorming," Sodomka said. "What does a green school look like? What courses do we need to offer at the different grade levels?"

He said Humboldt's 21-year partnership with Ecolab means an environmental focus makes perfect sense. And the school's partnerships with 3M Co., the University of Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas and St. Olaf College allow for greater possibilities in college and career technical training and internships. Also, the school could become the center for staff development and training for the entire district, making it a laboratory of sorts for improving teaching and curriculum.

"We still have a lot to sort out," Sodomka said. "But things are going well for us."

James Walsh • 651-298-1541

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