Johnson to close North High School in 2014, and perhaps by next summer if enrollment continues to dwindle, has sparked heated debate on both sides.
The school district points to dwindling enrollment which is currently hovering at 265 students; soaring per pupil expenditures because of the low enrollment at a school designed for over 1,000 students; and academic underachievement. The community’s response is that the plan to close the city’s oldest high school seems calculated as feeder elementary and middle schools were closed in recent years, school boundaries redrawn, and little effort was made to determine why parents in growing numbers were sending their children to other schools and limited strategic actions taken to address concerns about the long term educational viability of the school.
Clearly, both of these viewpoints offer elements of truth and are supported by facts. For instance, findings reports such as the Itasca Project suggest that “to maintain competitive advantage we will need to address the achievement gap and looming workforce shortage.” School district officials correctly assert that one out of every four Minneapolis Public School students, and probably more, will not earn a diploma - resulting in thousands who will face employment challenges in a shifting economy that requires higher order skills. The Economic Policy Institute’s study notes that Minneapolis unemployment rates reflect the highest racial disparity in the nation. All of these viewpoints indicate a critical need for our community to focus on the greater good when it comes to the North High School issue.
Granted, closing the school to the dismay of the community may save the school district money, but in the end, the bigger question must be will the educational outcomes for the students who are forced to attend other schools significantly improve. It is not difficult to close a school, note a tremendous amount of saved dollars, and assert the action was a win-win simply because some of the students may end up at a school with more resources. Closure of a school in any community across this nation is but a surface solution, while too often, root-cause issues which foster these nagging educational gaps never quite make it to the discussion table.
In recent years, societal issues have entered into the school yard more intensely, confronting educators with a range of personal, peer, family, environmental, and school risk factors unlike ever before. Consequently, if these risk factors are not countered with asset-building and learning environments that engage students, desired educational goals and preparation for a future career ladder will not be achieved.
I believe that the North High School issue presents an opportunity for our community to identify, pilot and reform educational systems and processes ultimately of benefit to all schools in this county. Improving educational outcomes, classroom learning and student engagement is a challenge facing all schools nationwide whether public, private or charter. Thus, if as a community we can design an educational framework that achieves better results in these areas, then we will finally unlock the pathway to opportunity for more students, today and in the future.
Consider the possibilities if all stakeholders decide to focus on creating solutions that address the widespread underachievement that is paralyzing segments of our community. Ponder what could occur if North High School is viewed as an opportunity to test in this current small setting evidence-based learning techniques, innovative curriculum approaches and career development programs that have proven successful in other educational settings. Add greater corporate, parental and community support, the tracking of trends so that replication opportunities are noted, and certainly, all of this deliberate action will offer answers to educational and learning disparities that go much deeper than the mere closing of a school building.
In view of shifting demographics in Minneapolis, and an aging population that will be exiting the workforce in large numbers in years to come, preparing individuals with skill sets essential for full participation in a globalized knowledge economy is a community educational, economic and social issue that must be proactively addressed. As a community, we must unite and hone in on what can work to equip people with essential basic, technical and soft skills that meet employer human resource requirements, now and in years to come.
The Minneapolis Urban League (MUL) is not suggesting that it readily has all the answers (and we all must acknowledge that the challenges and issues facing this school system and others nationwide are multi-dimensional, even understanding that there are a range of factors not within the direct control of school leaders). Nevertheless, in our own efforts to continuously improve learning outcomes for students who attend MUL schools, students who have not achieved levels of desired success in traditional learning environments, MUL has spent the past months searching for approaches which can better support student success. These strategies certainly could be offered in collaborative partnership with the school district in this quest for solutions to diminish underachievement. Full support to pilot these best-practice educational initiatives can help our community determine how to effectively aid our youth to once again appreciate learning.
For example, MUL is working to create a College Readiness - Career Development framework that can help students better understand the relevance of academic disciplines required in school as aligned with higher education and career aspirations. The America’s Career Resource Network Association in its report, The Educational, Social and Economic Value of Informed and Considered Career Decisions, details extensive evidence of benefits gained from career development principles infused throughout the curriculum, especially for students with a range of potential barriers and risk factors. Research shows that identifying career interests, matching the academic requirements to those choices, and determining education and training options allows students to find meaning in their school participation, and even excel.
Transitioning from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school presents challenges for some students, and often learning gains are lost during summer recess. It has been noted that the 9th grade can be pivotal for students who may eventually contemplate dropping out of school. As a solution, MUL is creating an 8.5 Program; a summer program for students as they prepare to enter high school. This enrichment program will engage students through sessions focused on financial literacy, career development and future aspirations; introduction to workplace skills and the corporate sector; learning to use technology, while also strengthening basic academic skills.
Realizing, as the US Department of Labor reports, that 75% of all jobs will require some level of postsecondary education, MUL is developing its 13th Year program. The MUL 13th Year will blend the completion of high school with college training in targeted occupational clusters so that students will have earned an associate degree or certificate, thus positioned for entry level jobs on their chosen career ladder. During 9th and 10th grades, students will take regular classes; and beginning in 11th grade, co-enrollment would commence blending high school and college classes. The 13th year classes will center on college courses leading to the award of an occupational certificate or associate degree in a job sector that offers career progression. The 13th Year program would also prepare and encourage students to pursue higher education at local universities in the State of Minnesota.
Both of these programs are key elements in MUL’s Project Ready, an intiative which offers students academic, personal and career development support at crucial points in their educational and employability journey. Retooling education in response to both the 21st century challenges and opportunities is necessary if we are to prepare the next generation for the world of work that is evolving all around us. Such initiatives could very well be the solution for North High School and the community it serves.
The question surrounding what to do with North High School is not an urban school issue; at its core it is not even an ethnicity issue. This is an educational issue, one that has been allowed to fester much too long nationwide, placing this country at the bottom of lists which compare educational systems amongst developing countries, and on lists which assess math, science and academic achievement globally.
Let’s reshape the challenges facing North High School into opportunities for all of our schools. Instead of swiftly closing the school, why not allow a team of education, leadership and quality management evaluators to document strengths as well as opportunities for improvement; then pilot appropriate educational and career development modifications to clearly identify what works, ensuring that the school receives the resources necessary to improve. Lessons learned can then be used to improve educational achievement county-wide, with possible application state and nationwide.
North High School affords us an opportunity to use inventive thinking and innovative programs to formulate a strategy aimed at leveling the educational landscape and elevating learning outcomes for more of our students. Instead of closing this school, let’s forge a gateway to boundless opportunity and the greater good.
Appropriately, I end with this quote from Booker T. Washington: “Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.”