Fresh from college and a suburban upbringing, Ann Mack was ready to quit by spring break of her first year teaching at Maria Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis.
She’d never seen a fight growing up in Eden Prairie schools. Student fights at Sanford were almost daily events. The school was rough, halls were chaotic.
Mack decided she’d had it. She sought out teaching colleague Eric Sparks in the middle of his baseball practice and told him, “I’m done.” But she wasn’t. “He talked me off the ledge.”
Fifteen years later, Mack is a mainstay at the Longfellow community school and has seen it transform from a nearly closed dumping ground with some of the state’s lowest test scores to a school that’s winning back kids from the mostly white area whose parents once shunned it. Enrollment has doubled in seven years, and scores are reaching district norms.
That turnaround happened because of the dedication of a long-term principal, staffers who stayed loyal when they could have switched to a less demanding building, and a strong network of parents who adopted the school. It wasn’t easy.
“Turning around the Queen Mary is certainly very easy compared to turning around any school,” said Karen Seashore, a University of Minnesota professor specializing in educational organizational studies. That takes stability and patience, she said.
“I was deeply impressed by the faculty’s commitment, openness, persistence and the results they got,” said school-reform advocate Joe Nathan, who worked with the school for several years to boost reading scores.
But now the leader of the school’s turnaround, Principal Meredith Davis, is leaving at the end of the school year, her 15th in the building. “You don’t get a principal like Meredith Davis very often,” said science teacher Chadly Koppenhaver. “There’s a culture here at this school that’s hard to describe or get into a flow chart.”
Sanford’s stable faculty contrasts with a more mobile student body. When Davis arrived as assistant principal in 1998, Hmong and Lao were moving through, but the school was also enrolling large numbers of East Africans, especially Somali refugees. The early refugees had some schooling, but later arrivals spent years in camps without quality teachers or curriculum, according to Said Salah Ahmed, a former Sanford teacher.
Somali-speaking students at Sanford account for nearly one in five Somalis in middle grades in Minneapolis, drawing mainly from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. About half now were born here; others immigrated. Some of the latter are middle-school-age kids who show up with first- or second-grade skills. It’s overwhelming work,” said Abdullahi Mohamed, who teaches math to students learning English.
But although East Africans represent a significant chunk of Sanford, their numbers are roughly equivalent to Latino and American-born blacks. Whites are now the largest group but make up just over a third of students; lack of a dominant group helps the atmosphere, Davis said. But what many students share is poverty, even though the percentage has dropped from three-quarters of students in 2005 to less than two-thirds.
But those students are increasingly offset by middle-class neighborhood kids, many white, to such an extent that Davis worries about what she describes as a bipolar student body. The number of kids not eligible for subsidized meals has tripled in seven years. Sparks, who teaches social studies, said the range of ability in one classroom makes it hard for teachers to tailor curriculum to so many differing needs.
Relative stability took years. After suffering through five principals in 1997-1998, Sanford first had to get control of its students. Teachers started leading lines of kids to their next class, and monitoring hallways. The school cracked down hard on discipline to set a tone. By 2005, enrollment dipped to 379, Davis was toying with changing the school’s name to escape its reputation, and district leaders tried to shutter Sanford. The school was saved when Somali parents flooded the school board in support of the school, bolstered by testimony from Nathan.
Area parents started to notice changes, after years in which some parents sent students far across the city to Anwatin Middle School. Val Ausland was an early leader among parents of Dowling Urban Environmental School fifth-graders considering their next move in 2005, Sanford or a K-8 school. They caucused, met with Davis and teachers, and wanting to keep together for middle school, sent 45 students to Sanford, and volunteered their time there. The proportion of Dowling students following them has risen steadily, Ausland said. Parents like Sanford’s practice of looping, which it has followed longer than most city middle schools — keeping faculty in key subjects with the same students all three years. “Those kids get so close to the teachers that there’s no slipping through the cracks,” Ausland said. White enrollment rose from less than 100 students then to 262 now, and total enrollment doubled to 766 by last fall.
Mack now mostly teaches a skill-building class called AVID, aimed at preparing students for the rigors of high school and beyond. They write, they discuss, they work on adult skills with e-mentors from Xcel Energy, and they read. Mack has an easy camaraderie with students born from mutual respect.
One of those students is eighth-grader Sadiq Mohamed, whose mentor has helped him learn to talk professionally and keep a conversation going.
After spending sixth grade in classes tailored to students learning English, he switched to mainstream classes last year and hopes to attend Roosevelt for its medical curriculum. The loss of his kidney to an infection in 2008 fired a desire to be a surgeon.
Students like Mohamed benefit from a faculty that largely has bought into an approach they describe varyingly and almost mystically as “Sanfordization,” a term Davis coined. Some describe it as a welcoming indoctrination for new faculty; others say it’s an approach where teachers leave egos at the door and pitch in together to get things done. But Davis is why many stay.
“She is 100 percent supportive and she always has the teacher’s back,” Mack said. Sparks, coming up on 20 years at Sanford, asked, “Why should I leave something that works?”
As Davis nears 65, uncertainty looms. The district is about to survey teachers and parents about what they want in a new leader before advertising the job; representatives of those groups will interview finalists. Davis also reassured a faculty she said provided her best ideas. “Hang in there. It’s going to be fine,” she told them recently. “If the United States government can survive changing leaders every four years, then Sanford can survive.”