Summer vibes and graduation jitters pulsed through North High School’s auditorium. It was two days before graduation, and these seniors were amped up for their cap and gown pickup.
One kid snagged a podium microphone and called out students’ names, pretending to be a commencement emcee. Another angled his phone to the microphone, blasting the song “Congratulations” by Post Malone through the auditorium.
The next time the roughly 50 seniors would cross the stage, on Saturday, they’d be graduates clutching diplomas.
A few years ago, people might have laughed at the prospect of a 2017 North High graduating class. Former Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson tried to shutter the building in 2010 — just three years before this group started as freshmen. Enrollment was tanking. Grades were dismal.
Yet these graduating seniors and their families became part of the turnaround story for one of the city’s most challenged high schools.
“We proved a lot of people wrong,” said North senior Kevin Dorsey.
The school restructured. Enrollment started to tick higher, almost doubling to 390 in the past five years. The school took home football and basketball championships. Graduation rates skyrocketed. North Siders cheered for their beloved building.
“I do see it as a comeback,” said Principal Shawn Harris-Berry. “I think it’s something that was owed to the community.”
Early results show promise for parts of the school but work still to be done in academics. Standardized tests and course grades show low ACT scores and high failure rates in ninth-grade courses.
Superintendent Ed Graff visited North on its first day of school in the fall, just weeks into his tenure as head of the state’s third-largest school district. Both the superintendent and North had much to prove. Graff rallied behind North at each of its successes, even sporting a North T-shirt after one of the school’s state championship wins. He said he’s proud of North’s results.
“North is definitely building a narrative in focus on the now,” he said.
Turn it around
Don Samuels was on the Minneapolis City Council in 2007 when he outraged the North Side community by saying that North High School should be burned down because it failed to teach black males. He quickly apologized for the statement, saying he meant he wanted to see “radical change” for the school.
Now a school board member, Samuels says change is happening. “We’re now in an upward direction,” he said. “Nobody could be more pleased than I.”
In the 2012 restructuring, Harris-Berry picked teachers for North and restored the school’s arts and communications specialties. The school has since added a focus in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
The principal credits academic and athletic performance as reasons for the enrollment rise, and the support of an academic community for the graduation improvement.
Last year’s seniors posted an 81.5 percent four-year graduation rate — up about 40 percentage points in five years. North kids found a home in the small-school setting nestled in one of the state’s biggest school districts.
Joleen Hopkins sings the praises of North High. Her children, twins Allie and Alexx Bryant-Hopkins, started at North as freshmen in 2013.
Allie chose North in part because it was a smaller school, her mom said. She initially resisted the idea of college, but one month into her freshman year at North reversed that. Allie has since soared to the top of her class, and she’ll graduate as valedictorian with Alexx by her side as salutatorian. She’ll attend the University of Minnesota as a business major, and Alexx will be at St. Cloud State pursuing a psychology degree with a health minor.
“Every grade is like a village,” their mother said. “The classrooms are small. The teachers have relationships with these kids.”
She added that without North, she’s confident her twins wouldn’t be headed to college in the fall.
North’s Cinderella story is found in a district trying to reverse long-standing achievement gaps and money problems.
School turnarounds don’t happen overnight, and when they do, they don’t always last. For Graff, boosting results goes hand-in-hand with increased expectations.
“Ultimately, we’re going to be measured on how we provide that consistently over time, in a sustainable manner,” he said. “That will be the real test.”
Even in its new model, North’s results are mixed. Hardly any students take standardized tests, but the 70 students who took the ACT last year have an average composite score of 15.7, compared with the 19.2 statewide average.
Nearly half of North’s freshmen failed one or more courses in the past few months — the highest rate of any district high school. To remedy course failures, the school plans to implement a freshman seminar to ensure kids have assistance so they don’t flunk.
Weeks before commencement, kids from all grades applauded during North senior awards, shouting out nicknames as seniors mounted the stage to accept certificates and scholarships. Half the class didn’t get awards, Harris-Berry said — a signal to underclassmen that it takes determination to do well at North.
As North High slips into summer mode next week, its work is far from done.
“I know they expect for us to continue to deliver, so it’s not over,” Harris-Berry said.