Board members ask Johnson to delay vote on North High

School Board meeting
Attendees at a Minneapolis School Board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010, held signs, calling for North High School to be kept open.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Three of the seven members of the Minneapolis School Board want the district's superintendent to delay next month's vote on closing North High School.

That request to delay came during an emotional meeting Tuesday night in which superintendent Bernadeia Johnson cited declining enrollment and poor academic achievement as reasons to close North.

She was met with opposition from dozens of North supporters in attendance.

The meeting started with a protest outside by dozens of North High supporters. When they moved inside, protestors accused the superintendent of giving up on the city's north side.

"You have failed us in the past, and if you fail us now and vote 'yes' on this proposal, you will have failed us for the last time because there will never be enough healing to overcome what you have done to this communitym," said Marcus Owens, who heads a group called "Friends of North High."

North High supporters
Protesters march outside the Minneapolis School District headquarters building in northeast Minneapolis Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010. They want the district to keep North High School open.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

What's failing, according to Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, is student achievement. Just 26 percent of North students are proficient in reading. In math, it's only 8 percent.

North High also has lost 75 percent of its enrollment in six years - just 265 students attend this year. Johnson said that's not enough to be sustainable, considering all the programs, electives and activities a robust high school experience should include.

Along with her reasons for recommending closing the school, Johnson candidly acknowledged the district's own missteps.

"Quite frankly, the district has made some decisions over the past ten years that in hindsight have not been in the best interest of the school," Johnson said. "We made them with the best of intentions; we made them with the goal of improving achievement and attracting families, but ultimately the decisions did not produce the results we wanted."

Superintendent  Bernadeia Johnson
Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, speaking after a meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010, to decide whether or not to delay a vote on closing North High School in Minneapolis. The vote is scheduled for November 9.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Those measures include making North High the city's first 'small specialty school' with a science/tech theme that aimed to draw in students from across Minneapolis.

Critics, though, say the district was setting the school up to fail by not giving it the resources it needed. They say enrollment is low because all the elementary and middle schools that fed into North are now closed. North High also is the only city high school without an attendance zone, meaning no one is assigned to attend North by default the way they are other high schools.

The meeting nearly ended early when Johnson repeatedly was interrupted during her remarks, but board member Chris Stewart stepped in.

"We will either eject individuals or adjourn the meeting and start back at a later time, and if you all feel like waiting for that to happen, I'm perfectly willing to make that happen," Stewart said.

Amid that emotion, school board member T. Williams asked Superintendent Johnson to delay the vote on closing North High scheduled to take place next month.

Williams lives near North High and is the only current board member seeking re-election in next month's election. He said North's fate should be included in a larger master plan for high schools that the board is already discussing.

"Taking action at this time is a piecemeal approach and only responses to the current enrollment crisis," Williams said.

Williams also said it was shortsighted for opponents to blame the board and superintendent and said they must commit themselves to working tirelessly if they are to save north. Board members Jill Davis and Peggy Flanagan also called for a delay, citing a need for more input. They also implored the crowd to stay engaged.

"The energy that we have in this room, the passion that is here -- we cannot let it go," Flanagan said. "So often what happens is we react, we get fired up, and then we go home. We cannot go home this time."

Not every board member joined in asking for a delayed vote. Chris Stewart said it is one thing to get fired up for one meeting, but North High has had scores of problems for years.

"Things are not good enough for the kids in North High right now; it's not good enough. It has to be better," Stewart said. "We heard a lot about how it's so fantastic; it's not. It's not good enough."

The question now is whether Superintendent Johnson will delay the vote. Tuesday night's meeting ended without an answer either way, which means a final vote on closing North High is still on for November 9.

"I'm going to go home and reflect on the meeting tonight and think about," Johnson said. "I wrote down the comments from every individual that spoke tonight because I think it's important to capture that, and their names.

Johnson said she noted 33 individuals that spoke at the meeting about North High and their concerns, and the she might be actually contacting a couple of them to follow up.

The public will have another chance to grill Johnson and other district leaders at a community meeting Monday night, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach Center (UROC), located at 2100 Plymouth Ave N, Minneapolis.

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