On the first day of school Monday, North High School was packed with about 400 students — compared to just 52 five years ago. The new superintendent would make his first visit soon. Excitement was high.

Still, the school was quiet. No ruckus anywhere.

“Some people, when they come to North, that have low expectations, are surprised when they come in and see that it’s orderly,” said Principal Shawn Harris-Berry.

With a new superintendent in office and a new school year underway, there is an intensified desire across the Minneapolis School District to beat expectations and capitalize on new beginnings.

“This time of year, whether I was a teacher, administrator or superintendent, you always get that excitement and feeling of a little pressure, because the work you do is extremely important,” Superintendent Ed Graff said Friday as he whipped up enthusiasm for Monday’s launch.

Graff has been on the job just two months, the winner of a grinding search for a new leader dating to January 2015. He joins a district that has been falling short of the academic expectations in its ambitious strategic plan and lagging in statewide test results released last month. Parents, school board members and the community are demanding change.

North High is just one example of challenges ahead for Graff.

If things had worked out differently, there might not have been a first day of school at North this year. The district threatened to close the school in 2010 because of plummeting enrollment and lackluster academics.

But four years since Harris-Berry took over and the school implemented specialized programs, enrollment has grown dramatically. She pegs it to athletic and academic performance. She added that North didn’t have a middle school that feeds into it until this year, which has contributed to a big ninth-grade class. Only 250 students were expected at the beginning of the summer. Now the count of about 400 will grow by Labor Day, the district said.

There’s a new academy in place this year, a project-based learning program around science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The boys’ basketball team, the Polars, took home the 1A state championship in the spring, and the first football game is Friday. Trophies touting athletic achievements pack award cases.

In the morning, Harris-Berry directed Graff around the school as he greeted students and complimented the enrollment surge.

“So what do we have out here?” Graff asked Harris-Berry, who was showing him around the school.

“This is our courtyard. And so, we’re actually a square, so you can’t get lost,” Harris-Berry said, explaining the school’s layout, and perhaps something more. “Well, you can get lost, but you can always find your way.”

The new guy at school

North is the city’s oldest high school, and its existing building was built in 1973. When the community rose up against the plan to close North, the district poured money into saving it. Former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson called in a consultant, and Harris-Berry drafted people she calls “experts” — teachers and staff.

“It’s like a once-in-a-career opportunity that you can actually start a school,” she said.

Graff met Marquis Holloman, a 16-year-old senior who has dreams of attending Howard University.

“I’ll check back in,” Graff said to him.

Though enrollment has increased, test scores haven’t. Results from the state reading and math tests discussed at a school board committee meeting last week showed North had 7 percent proficiency on the math portion of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments and 5 percent proficiency in reading. The numbers were among the lowest of any high school in the district.

Harris-Berry said those results are distorted by the high numbers of students opting out of the tests, something that has become increasingly popular in Minneapolis high schools. Only about 50 students took either test. She insisted that the students are doing well academically on classroom assessments.

Numbers of students finishing high school have picked up, too. Of 64 seniors in last year’s class, 62 graduated on time, Harris-Berry said. Students there talk about college, some with sights on schools like Howard and Spelman College.

Good things to come

It seemed appropriate that North was on the first-day schedule for the new superintendent. This year’s student body is mostly freshmen, Harris-Berry said.

During a midmorning passing time, Graff walked up a hallway as kids flowed in and out, an unfamiliar figure who stuck out even more with his lanky figure and suit and tie. Students echoed greetings back to him.

At North, he said he wants to continue to boost enrollment. Graff said he was impressed by students’ academic dreams and told seniors he’s looking forward to seeing them onstage at graduation.

In his last classroom visit of the day at North, Graff spoke to a group of students in Courtney Bell’s Introduction to African-American Studies class.

“I can tell you that when people talk about Minneapolis, they think about North High School,” he said. “So whatever you guys represent, how you act, how you achieve, that’s what people are going to think about here in Minneapolis.”