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At North High, freshmen mark a new beginning

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North High School
Mahommed Moses, center, and his biology classmates record their heart rates before and after exercise Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012 during teacher Torrey Lau's class at North Community High School Academy of Arts and Communications. The experiment was designed by the students and intended to help them learn about data gathering and numeric calculations.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Two years ago, North High School nearly shut down. Community groups rallied to save the school. Now it's starting over with smaller classes and a focus on getting students ready for college. But recruiting students to the new school remains a challenge. 

The arrival of this fall's freshman class marks the beginning of a transformation for this Minneapolis high school.

Small classes are the norm for freshman at the new North High School. In this algebra class, for instance, there are 17 students here, and two teachers.

"We try to make sure the kids stay on track, that they turn in all their assignments, that they don't fall too behind," says one of those teachers, Warsame Warsame.

For students accustomed to classrooms twice as full, the smaller classes come as a relief.  

In middle school it was common for nearly 40 students to share just one teacher, said Mahommed Moses, 14.

"If there's a whole bunch in a class you're not going to get as much individual work with the teacher.  But (here) you do, because there's only like 10 or 12 kids in one class," Moses said.

North High School
Shawn Harris-Berry, principal at North Community High School Academy of Arts and Communications, hustles students between classes during a four-minute passing period Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012 at the Minneapolis school. Sixty freshmen attend the new academy. A class will be added each year until the school serves students in grades 9-12, with about 100 students per grade.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

One reason the class sizes are so small is because the school is still working to enroll more students. But school officials say even if they hit their goals, they'll remain committed to smaller than normal class sizes of 20 to 25 students.

There's also a commitment to provide more advising and counseling for students, a focus on preparing students for college and an expectation that parents and guardians will be more engaged. District officials hope these changes translate into improved overall test scores within two years.

With this new mission comes a new name: North Community High School Academy of Arts and Communications.  

Right now, the school is made up of only freshmen. As students make their way up through the grades, the old North High School, now called North High Senior Academy, will be phased out. 

North High School
Freshman Tykaja Hall, front right, of Minneapolis, takes notes during geography Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012 at North Community High School Academy of Arts and Communications. Hall is one of 60 students in the new school's freshman class. With small class sizes and one-on-one attention from teachers, Hall said she thinks she can meet her goal to keep her grades up.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The new North High is nothing short of a complete reboot.  

"I think students are quickly realizing that this is something new and this is something different and they're starting to really appreciate what they have here," said Shawn Harris-Berry, who serves as principal of the new North High School.

Two years ago the school faced falling enrollment, a graduation rate of less than 50 percent and test scores that were near the bottom in state rankings.

That's when Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent Bernadia Johnson announced plans to close North High School. 

Community groups opposed the move, rallied to save the school, and Johnson changed her mind. 

The district began working with the Institute for Student Achievement, a national group that manages the turnaround of failing schools.

"It's going to take time to win over students and parents who were scared away when the district threatened to close the school down just two years ago."

With its new emphasis on teacher and student interaction, one might think students and parents would be eager to enroll. But so far the school has enrolled only 61 freshmen, far short of its goal of 100, and far fewer than nearby Patrick Henry High School with a freshman class of 260.

Brett Buckner, a community member who fought to keep the school open, warns its going to take time to win over students and parents who were scared away when the district threatened to close the school down just two years ago. 

"That's a Herculean task," Buckner said. "To really start to change peoples' mindset. To say, 'Hey look. This whole thing is going in the right direction. Now all we need is you.' "

District officials expect to continue to enroll freshman as the school year progresses.

Mark Bonine, an associate superintendent with the Minneapolis Public Schools district, hopes current students will spread the word about the school and help bring in more students next year.

"I think the first year is a really big year.  Then I think naturally once they've been through a year, they're talking to their brothers and sisters and community members, it makes recruiting that much easier," Bonine said.

Because fewer students enrolled than expected, per-pupil costs are about 40 percent higher than at comparable schools.  District officials say they hope 500 students are enrolled in grades 9 through 12 within four years. If they can hit that goal, it will cost about as much to teach a student at the new North as it does at other Minneapolis schools.