May 29, 2020

How to save a school without saving kids

The video above tells the exultant story of one community’s fight to save a beloved high school from closure. It’s narrated by a friendly female voice over slick graphics and fast transitions between copy-written messages that artfully define school reformers as bad guys and teacher unionists as defenders of community values.

The narrator frames the story in a way that holds teachers up as allies in the struggle for better schools. She says:

School reform shouldn’t pit parents and teachers against each other. In one Twin Cities community, parents understood this. They knew the could raise money from big foundations by saying they were going to focus on simply getting rid of bad teachers but these parents hadn’t actually encountered many teachers that didn’t care about their kids and they understood that real improvement needed frontline teachers in classrooms to carry it out, so instead, they decided to build relationships with teachers and collaborate to improve schools.

You get the picture. Heroic teachers and engaged parents locked arms to fight the power. Overwhelmed by this irrepressible surge of community action the school board reversed itself and decided to reinvest in the school rather than closing it.

It’s an amazing story with one regrettable problem.

It’s all a lie. Not a misunderstanding of the facts or a simple matter of differences opinion about what happened, but a level of manipulative and deceptive storytelling that could be a case study in disinformation. The people who made this video, namely the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, should be ashamed.

How do I know? I was there.

Closing North High

When I joined the Minneapolis Board of Education in 2007 no school was suffering more than North Community High School. Still, it was Minneapolis’ oldest school with generations of legacy built into its ethos.

Located on the city’s “Northside” where blacks and Jews settled during times when black home owners could cause riots by moving to other Minneapolis neighborhoods, and Jews suffered social exclusion in a city once dubbed America’s capital of anti-semitism, NCHS managed to provide a strong education to many. Among them Floyd B. Olson, the first governor elected from Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party who graduated in 1909; the  world famous Andrews Sisters (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”); and Morris Day and Terry Lewis from The Time.

By the time Minneapolis Public Schools administration and board reluctantly considered closing NCHS it was a faint hologram of its better days.

After an NAACP educational adequacy lawsuit against the State of Minnesota gave neighborhood parents access to other city high schools with fuller academic programs or open enrollment to attend suburban schools with better academics and sports programs, NCHS was a shell housing a small population of unfortunate kids. The school lagged in test scores.  There were significant safety concerns. Fewer parents trusted the school.

In the six years between 2004 and 2010 enrollment plunged from 1,100 to 265 (it was built for 1,600 students). With fewer students came less programming. Compared to the district’s wealthiest, whitest high schools (South and Southwest high schools) NCHS had a third of the academic, co-curricular, and extra-curricular offerings.

If that wasn’t a serious enough equity problem, the cost of warehousing kids NCHS’ baron building was $4,000 more per pupil each year than spent in the better stocked high schools.

Ironically, when all of this culminated in a proposal to phase out NCHS and get its students to safe harbor the president of the local chapter of the NAACP issued a call for the remaining black parents in Minneapolis Public Schools to pull their kids out of the district schools as a protest.

That is the inescapable context Annenberg sidestepped. Apparently their purpose is not educate, but to indoctrinate the public.  That brand of “school reform” does more harm than good.

Saving North High

The recommendation to close NHS predictably riled community activists, especially those in the NCHS alumni association. They quickly started an email campaign to save the school and were quickly joined by political and idealogical opportunists including the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, their recently purchased organizing front group Neighborhood Organizing for Change (an outfit born out of ACORN’s implosion after the “pimp assistance” scandal), and a ragtag group of self-identifying “socialists.”

One thing seemed clear: it wasn’t NCHS parents that were animated to save the school.

If I had any doubt about that it was satisfied during the public hearing for school closure we were obligated to hold. The hearing drew over 300 people who came to deliver comments to the board. As a courtesy parents of NCHS students were allowed to speak first. There were few. I remember two. One was a white suburban parent who had deftly figured out that NHS’ gifted magnet program had opening, low class size, and a level of segregation for the magnet kids from the other students that should have qualified it as a separate school. The other was a black parent who really believed NHS could make a comeback even though expensive efforts to make the school attractive to neighborhood parents failed to attract them back from better offers outside of their school boundaries.

Several alumni came to speak out against closure while admitting the school wasn’t good enough for their own children. Many had no children at all but wanted the building to stay open as a monument to their high school glory days.

Two state representatives, Bobbie Champion and Jeff Hayden, released a statement denouncing the recommendation to close . Champion said “I am not ready to give up on our future, but that appears to be what some people think we should do…This is my home and this is our community. We need to stand together for our schools, for our children, and for our community. Now is not the time to cut and run.”

Hayden said “There are families that are feeling really blind sided by this.”

Congressman Keith Ellison also chimed in with a letter read by his aide. His message was similarly populist.

It was hypocritical and opportunistic for these elected officials to jump on the “save North High” bandwagon. Champion’s kids were using open enrollment to attend school in the suburbs. Hayden’s were in private school. Ellison had selected private schools and schools across town.

The protests of teachers felt equally hypocritical. The majority of Minneapolis teachers live outside of Minneapolis. Those in the city that choose Minneapolis Public Schools use their staff privilege to get their kids in one of three upper-class schools of privilege that always have limited seating for the city’s unwashed kids.

And the rent-a-protestors at Neighborhoods Organizing for Change? Their leader at the time, Steve Fletcher, was childless (their new executive director is a private school parent). He had grown up in the suburbs as the son of two suburban teachers.

I can’t remember any of them asking about the conditions of the kids in the school, only how we might keep the building open.

In the end I voted with my colleagues on the board to keep NCHS open. After three years of fighting with the district to turn things around for that school, and seeing no community advocacy, I thought the new energy could hold district staff accountable for improvements. I amended the motion to keep NCHS open with a demand that its students be offered curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular offerings equal to other Minneapolis high schools.

It was a gambit that didn’t pay off.

Community members who pledged with perfect earnestness to knock on doors, talk to parents, and recruit neighborhood students to believe in the school again fatigued after saving the school. Their first target was to get another 125 student within a year and they failed to convince  that small number of students to return to their neighborhood high school. Enrollment slid from 265 to 225.

And, the district failed to bring curricular offerings to anything resembling a comprehensive high school program.

Kids left behind

It’s particularly troubling to me that Annenberg’s video avoids the one question that should drive all education stories: “how are the children”? The answer is devastating. If the situation was terrible when district staff recommended closing the school it is even worse now.

As an example, several NCHS students came to a board meeting this past fall to complain that their high school is the only one in the district without working bathrooms or running water for their sports teams. They have port-a-potties. No lights for night time football practice either.

NCHS still offers its students the least academic amount of opportunity when compared to other district high schools:

MPS Courses

And, academically, things have gone from bad to unconscionable.

Since NCHS was saved reading proficiency has tumbled from 26% to %17; math proficiency from 8% to 2%; and the four year graduation rate slid from 48% to 37%.

These numbers should help you predict what life holds for NCHS students.

They should also say everything about the misguided liberal religiosity about saving schools – which is proxy for saving jobs in schools. We get so bound up in inch-deep hipster activism that we fail to get beyond the cartoons and ideological fluff. It’s that partisan lazy mindedness that makes us useless to social justice movements.

If we are about politics we will continue to allow our strings to be pulled by the progressive vs. conservative rhetoric of the school reform abyss.

If we are about justice we question our friends and enemies alike about the true condition of children.

Currently, no one is doing that for North Community High School students because, apparently, the school has been saved.

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