The hallways are filled with little faces, folded arms, and stomping feet. A flat screen television that serves as the school’s bulletin board hangs high in the main hallway. A vivid mural depicting the north Minneapolis tornado gives the tragedy shape and color from the students’ perspective. The aesthetics of the school are wonderful and appealing to the eye, but make no mistake; the children walking these halls come from neighborhoods that have a history littered with high unemployment rates, unstable housing stock, rapidly escalating crime centered around an epidemic of youth violence and just about every other indicator such as lower test scores and lower graduation rates that points to achievement gaps in education.
“The majority of our students are African American and they come from families that live below the poverty line,” said Mauri Melander, Lucy Laney principal.
Melander has been the principal at the middle school since just last year and she agrees that the neighborhood has many challenges and mirroring the neighborhood, the school has its issues as well. Lucy Laney has struggled with low standardized test scores but according to Melander, the real test is getting a child to focus on learning when they have so many other issues that they are dealing with.
“My children get off the bus at 8:25 a.m. and that’s when the struggles begins. Some of our children are faced with problems you wouldn’t believe; problems like homelessness,” said Melander.
Melander wants Lucy Laney to be an escape for her students. She strongly believes that by encouraging her staff to view its community differently and by building school pride, the staff, the students and their parents will take ownership in the school despite the challenges it faces. She said then they will begin to remedy the problems and create an environment where children are comfortable learning.
“In order for a child to learn they have to be vulnerable and it’s a challenge to get them there because they are on guard and feel they have to be so hard. We have to create a place that is peaceful and clam – a sort of island for our kids. But our kids can’t be comfortable if our teachers can’t connect with them,” said Melander.
How does one form that connection and build a bridge that leads to successful education?
Melander said that the teacher has to know the neighborhood from which the students come and that means becoming absorbed with the community; not just from opinions based on what statistics say, but become familiar with the people who make up the community.
“I set aside a day where the staff and teachers went out into the community and spoke with our neighbors – parents, grandparents-- and it was great. We put our money together and purchased t-shirts. We put together an informational handout about landmarks in north Minneapolis and we let every Laney family know we would be near their home. Some of the teachers were invited into the homes by parents. Some of my staff came back in tears because they were so happy and felt so welcomed and honored,” said Melander.
Melander believes that the outing resulted in relationship changes; and what were once confrontational interactions between staff and students and staff and parents turned into very positive and welcoming interactions. Melander said this has led to the student and the parents having pride in the school.
“Change is first based on a belief,” said Melander.
Melander said the students and parents know there is a genuine concern and in turn, the students, parents and educators are connected through the school.
“They have a sense of ownership. A grandparent approached us and said, ‘I love the school. My grandchildren go there and I love it.’ I can’t change everyone’s view of the school, but what I can do is work to move forward and make the students and parents of the students believe in Lucy Laney and be proud,” said Melander.