In Mpls, advocates set to fight for North High's survival

After a 75 percent drop in enrollment, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is proposing to close North High School.

Advocates for the school are promising a fight to keep the school open. That fight starts tonight, when they plan to protest outside a Minneapolis school board meeting.

There were more than 1,100 students attending North High School just six years ago. This year, there are just 265, and only about 40 of those are freshman who started this fall.

"The halls are really quiet when you're in there," said Dudley Voigt, an artist who works with theater and other arts programs at schools across Minneapolis.

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Voigt was once the 'theater artist in residency' at North. She said students and teachers there were as sophisticated and engaged as she's ever seen.

But, she said, "it's quite strange to be in a high school and the bell rings and there isn't an explosion into the hallways."

Superintendent Johnson cited North's enrollment drop in a letter last week to the families of North students.

If the school board signs off on her plan, current North students will be allowed to keep going there, but no new freshman will be allowed next year. That would make this year's freshmen, the class of 2014, North's last graduating class.

School board Chairman Tom Madden says it's a painful choice, but one that has to be made, especially considering most of the city's seven high schools have seen enrollments fall.

"We don't have enough kids for seven high schools, no matter how you slice it, he said. "The district's been trying to bring in kids through other program additions and changes and boundary changes and it hasn't worked. And I personally think it hasn't worked because we don't have enough kids to begin with."

Madden says there are not enough students at north to justify paying for electives and after-school activities that match offerings at high schools with hundreds more students.

North High School has been a part of north Minneapolis for more than 120 years, though it's only been in its current building since the 1970s. The neighborhood now has a large African-American population, but also a large population in poverty. North High has long been a struggling school academically.

Critics of the closure say the district set North up to fail. North High alumnus and DFL state Rep. Bobby Joe Champion says the district has in previous years closed elementary and middle schools on the north side that fed into North High.

"I went to Lincoln Elementary Schools. Closed. Relatives of mine went to Willard. Closed. Some people went to Franklin. It's closed," he said. "To me all of this collectively speaks to what I understand to be a continued vision that seems to marginalize the folks in north Minneapolis."

Champion also says the district is losing students to charter schools and neighboring districts but not doing a good enough job of finding out why those students left and whether the district could lure them back.

A district spokesman disputes that, saying the district has tried several things, but in North's case, the numbers haven't rebounded.

North is the only high school in the city without an attendance zone, wchih means it's no one's default school. Even families living across the street from North are assigned to Henry or Edison. District leaders acknowledge that, but add the enrollment problem has been around longer than those attendance zones.

Kale Severson graduated from North in 2001 and now lives near the school. He's also president of the North Alumni Association and plans to protest before tonight's meeting.

"We've lost too many schools as it is over here, and if we lose North, I have serious doubts about this community rebounding and being a successful, thriving community," he said.

The Minneapolis School Board will only hear the recommendations on North tonight. A final vote is expected on Nov. 9.