Just a few years ago Minneapolis North High School was practically the poster child for the worst in urban public education, with awful graduation rates, a poor school environment, and families and students abandoning the historic institution for other options.
But now, some of those problems look less daunting. Enrollment has gone up, almost doubling to nearly 400 since 2012. Graduation rates for the small school of mostly African-American students rose to 81 percent in 2016, up a whopping 40 percentage points in five years. And twin siblings who plan to attend Minnesota colleges were recently heralded for being at the top of their class with 3.9 and 3.7 GPAs.
Spirit within and for the school has also been boosted by state championships in basketball and football. And the mighty effort that the community and alums waged to keep the school alive helped attract students. The positive changes demonstrate that with the right leadership, staff, instruction and community support, struggling schools can be transformed. Improvements at North can be a model for other programs.
Although then-Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson had recommended closing the school in 2010, she was instrumental in its revival. When community pushback prevailed, she recruited a proven principal, Shawn Harris-Berry, and allowed her to hire her teaching team. Then they adopted a research-based instruction model for challenged high schools from the Institute for Student Achievement.
ISA guidelines encourage small schools and class sizes. Its schools adopt a college prep teaching and learning curriculum, build relationships and offer personalized instruction for students and hold continuous professional development and coaching for staff.
Studies of ISA programs around the country show that they have higher-than-average high school attendance rates and that 81 percent of ISA students are still enrolled or graduate from higher learning institutions four years after high school. ISA's largely black and Latino student population has a four-year cohort graduation rate of nearly 80 percent, compared with about 60 percent for those two groups nationally.
Despite the progress, there's more work to be done at North. Standardized test scores of students in lower grades were low. And the composite score of the 70 students who took the ACT exam last year was 15.7, while 22 is generally thought to indicate college readiness.
Still, the other changes have put North and its students on the right path. It's a victory that so many of the school's students are now taking the ACT, that the majority of 2016 and 2017 grads are going on to college or some other postsecondary school, and that growing numbers of North teens are now taking AP or other upper-level courses.
One goal in the next few years, says Harris-Berry, is to enroll about 850 students divided into two academies to maintain small class sizes and maximum individual attention for students. The goals and current practices hold tremendous promise to turn what was once a struggling city high school into a thriving community asset.