Roosevelt High School Principal Michael Bradley roams the halls at a time when most students should be in class.

Here comes a student heading to the bathroom, phone in hand, earbuds pumping music.

"Psst. Psst. You can't hear me. Why not," Bradley whispers.

He closes in and taps the student, who quickly removes the earbuds and says an embarrassed "sorry."

It's one of Bradley's rules. Earbuds out. Hoods down. Hats off. No F-word.

"I want this to feel as much like church as possible, make it as formal as possible," Bradley said.

For five years, Bradley has been working to erase Roosevelt's rough reputation and make it feel as welcoming and safe as possible, a school where students come to get a rigorous and well-rounded education.

Many other school leaders in Minneapolis and across the country depend on data-driven initiatives focused on math and reading test scores to boost student achievement, but not Bradley. He aims his efforts at the humans: giving students equitable access to art, theater, strong academics and a feeling of community.

These are the things that keep students coming back every day, he says.

"We focus on the culture, not all that B.S. business model infiltrating schools," Bradley said.

The school is seeing results. Graduation rates are at their highest levels since 2011. Enrollment is on the upswing after years of decline. While scores on state exams remain low, Bradley said students are more engaged in classes and are seeing academic growth.

"He really pays attention to the whole child, and creates a warm and welcoming environment, which is the base ingredient for success," said Michael Thomas, the district administrator who oversees Bradley's work.

Before classes start at 8:10 a.m., Bradley stands in front of Roosevelt's doors and greets every student by name.

Between classes and during lunch hours, he roams the halls, mingling with his 900 students. He asks one how he's doing in track and another about her college application.

'I never saw my principal'

Though a principal's day can quickly fill up with meetings with staff, parents or district administrators, Bradley tries to reserve these times for his students.

"People sometimes say, 'I never saw my principal.' I want the opposite," he said. "I want people to say they knew me and had that relationship."

Bradley began his career at Roosevelt in 1999 at age 31. In a suit, he walked a mile from his home on 37th Avenue S. and E. 37th Street to the school to ask the principal for a job.

He was licensed to teach English as a second language and the school was seeing an influx of immigrant students. He got the job on the spot.

He spent three years teaching English to hundreds of immigrant children. At that time, most of the newcomers were Somali.

Much of his career after that was spent as an administrator in programs or schools dedicated to teaching immigrant students. Today, as he leads Roosevelt, more than 33 percent of the students are English language learners. Most are Latino.

"I soaked up tons of knowledge about kids' lives, the culture from which they came, the hardships they'd endured," Bradley said.

Arguing the school's merits

Bradley said in his first years as principal, the school was seen by some as a place of "depravity" and not a place where students had the same access to classes and programs as other schools in the city.

"People used to be angry about the idea that, 'I might have to go to Roosevelt,' " Bradley said. "You constantly had to argue the school's merits."

Bradley is quick to acknowledge the school still has a lot to do. On state math tests, 15 percent of the school's juniors mastered the content last year. In reading, 23 percent of sophomores met standards.

"We have students who come in behind," he said. "We have students who come in as English learners. We have to set reasonably high goals of growth and then inspire them to attain those goals."

But instead of using his school budget to pay for programs and initiatives to boost math and reading scores, he has supported more arts and rigorous coursework to keep students returning to school.

This year, for the first time in at least a decade, the school put on a play and a musical in its freshly remodeled auditorium.

A Spanish Heritage class, aimed at native speakers, uses a Latino identity curriculum that focuses on advanced Spanish vocabulary, reading and writing skills.

Last year's graduation rates were at their highest levels since 2011, with 68 percent of seniors receiving diplomas.

District officials invited Bradley to a school board meeting to discuss his results earlier this year. It wasn't until he was sitting in the boardroom that he learned his school had the second-highest increase in graduation rates for Latino students, behind only Southwest High.

"I want to know that our numbers are going up anecdotally. I want to know that by knowing our kids," he said.

Putting climate first

He does that by putting the climate of the school first.

Every day he wears shirts and sweatshirts with Roosevelt's mascot, a teddy bear. He tries to learn the name of every student, and greets them every time he sees them. His habits have rubbed off on teachers, who have taken to doing the same thing.

It has left a strong impression on the students.

Junior Rachel Lawrence's friend recently shadowed her at school and was shocked that students and staff talked to one another in the hallways.

"It's a very personal relationship that you have with everyone," she said. "In other schools you only really know the people you hang out with."

Claire Kjome, a sophomore, is proud that the school's sports and arts programs are gaining a better reputation.

"I think people are starting to realize that the stereotypes of Roosevelt are not true," she said.

A new class

Earlier this month, the school invited next year's freshmen, the class of 2020, to visit.

Hundreds of them, and their parents, packed the auditorium to get their first glimpse at the classes, clubs and extracurricular activities ranging from welding to dance.

But first, the guy in the maroon and gold Roosevelt sweatshirt stood on the stage to welcome them.

He promised the parents that he and his teachers are committed to supporting their children academically, emotionally and socially.

At the renewed Roosevelt, Bradley said, "A lot of our work is to make a world inside our school that is better than the world outside."

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028