It began as a modest effort to beautify the grounds of Minnesota’s oldest public high school. Come June 13, when ground is broken on Transforming Central, it will have become much more than that.
Thanks to a spirited and persistent fundraising campaign, mainly by St. Paul Central High School parents, the project will also lessen the effects of polluted stormwater runoff, give Central students a way to study the effects of pollutants, and create more welcoming connections between the school and its neighborhood.
After raising more than $580,000, Transforming Central parents are waiting to see if they are awarded one more piece to fill in the puzzle: A $100,000 STAR grant from the city that would help build an outdoor classroom, improve lighting and improve landscaping even further.
“The genesis was to make it look better,” said Central parent Nina Tuttle, a leader of the group. “We really wanted it to reflect the great stuff that is going on inside.”
Thanks to an early 1980s remodel with lots of concrete block and white metal, people might think they manufacture license plates inside, instead of the many Rhodes scholars and Ivy League graduates the school has produced.
“They just got tired of comments about the prisonlike look of this place,” said Central’s longtime principal, Mary Mackbee. “When this project is finished, it will be much more like a college commons area out front.”
About five years ago, parents started planting bulbs and flowers on the school’s 2.6-acre site. Thanks to a $10,000 city grant, a barbed-wire-topped fence was taken down and replaced by new fencing at the campus’ northeast corner. In partnership with the Capitol Region Watershed District, the project grew to include a stormwater improvement plan, landscaping and lighting.
The plan is to complete the beautification project by the start of the next school year — Central’s 150th.
Mackbee acknowledged it will be a welcome change from a daunting 2015-16. In December, science teacher John Ekblad suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was assaulted by a student while trying to break up a fight in the cafeteria. In January, a student died after going into cardiac arrest at school. Two other students died later that month from health problems.
The project has given parents, students and the surrounding neighborhood a rallying point, said parent Ann Hobbie.
“This is a really committed community,” she said.
Mackbee admitted that the project won’t alter the exterior of the Central building, so it might not eliminate the prison jokes.
“There will always be those,” she said. “But we’ll have a very pretty entrance.”