‘We’re going for broke': How the Brooklyn Center school district changed everything in a difficult week

Tow people pack grocery bags with food.
Brooklyn Center High School head football coach Chauncey Williams-Barefield, left, and elementary school teacher Camille Primoli work together to prepare bags of food and resources for district families to pick up during a resource drive at Brooklyn Center High School on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When Brooklyn Center Community Schools superintendent Carly Baker heard on Sunday that Daunte Wright had been killed by local police, she knew her district needed to drop what it was doing and change everything. 

“What we have started with is to give our staff permission to actively abandon what a traditional learning environment looks like,” she said.

Baker immediately mobilized a team of people to start calling students and families to check on what they needed. Some of them live near where Wright was killed. Others have had crowds of demonstrators and law enforcement clashing in clouds of tear gas right outside their apartment windows.

A man smiles behind a face shield with stickers on it.
Arnold Briggs, an after-school program staff member at Brooklyn Center Elementary, wears a face shield decorated with super hero stickers as he helps sort donations at a resource drive at Brooklyn Center High School on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Baker instructed staff to disrupt normal lessons and give students time and space to talk about what was happening. 

“During times like this the worst thing we can do is pretend it’s not happening. To say, ‘Our kids need us to focus on the normalcy of math standards,’” she said.

“Our kids need us to see them.”

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She switched all classes to distance learning, to be sure students wouldn’t have to worry about getting to school safely as National Guard trucks rumbled through neighborhoods and nationally televised protests erupted right across the street from their middle and high school campus.

But Monday morning, droves of school leaders and staff turned up in the high school parking lot anyway. Assistant principal Courtney Bell-Duncan says she and her colleagues wanted to be there for students, in case they needed or wanted to come to school. 

“What are we doing at home? We wanted to come and we wanted to support and we wanted to stand in the gap,” Bell-Duncan said.  

The school’s principal had spent time sourcing food donations from local businesses after grocery stores had boarded up their doors. So Bell-Duncan and her colleagues jumped right in, directing traffic, lugging boxes, making food deliveries and organizing a system to get basic necessities to people who needed them. Soon donations were pouring in. 

A pyramid of paper products.
A pyramid of donated paper products sits waiting to be sorted at Brooklyn Center High School during a resource drive.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“This is one of those experiences that is grounded in so much tragedy, but it brings out the humanity in everybody,” she said.

Bell-Duncan hasn’t slept much this week. But showing up and supporting her community has felt deeply necessary, even as she worries that diapers and food are just a drop in the bucket when compared to all the despair, pain and anger she knows people are feeling. 

“If I’m just speaking honestly, I see and I feel numbness because we deserve better,” Bell-Duncan said. “I have to be present even though it hurts, even though I’m angry, because you know that if you allow numbness to overtake you, then you bear the risk of becoming part of the status quo.”  

The line of people waiting for diapers and fruit outside one of the school buildings has grown by the day. People have come from across the city, and from other cities to get supplies for themselves, their neighbors and students. 

Social workers from other districts have spread the word, and are helping get supplies to whoever needs them. Staff have been fielding calls from terrified parents, begging for help to get their children away from nights filled with protests, tear gas and flash bangs from police. 

A man in a face shield sorts cereal.
Arnold Briggs, a staff member at Brooklyn Center Elementary, sorts cereal to be distributed to district families in need on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

School leaders are doing whatever they can think of to help. They’ve handed out information to equip students to protest peacefully and safely.

They’ve posted information online to equip students to protest peacefully and safely. On Thursday, they stood watch and handed out pizza as students gathered on the edge of the middle and high school campus, near the Brooklyn Center Police Department, where several nights of protest and police clashes have damaged their fence.

“Today we had to come together,” said Ianna Young, 17, an 11th grader at Brooklyn Center High School. “We can’t cry anymore. We can’t stand behind the sidelines anymore. We have to take action to show them that we are serious about what we’re doing here. Our Black families are scared and they’re afraid to send their Black children out.” 

Packed grocery bags sit on a table.
Bags of groceries wait to be taken by district families at a resource drive at Brooklyn Center High School on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Young appreciates the support she’s gotten from her teachers. Bell-Duncan said the district’s radical move away from business as usual is exactly what’s needed. 

“What’s happening right here is not normative for a school district. We’re going for broke. We’re doing whatever needs to be done,” Bell-Duncan said.

“Anything that’s in the way, we’re moving it. Anything that’s a threat to serving as many people as possible and doing the greatest good, we’re not having it. You need to be serving. You need to be on the right side of justice.” 

Bell-Duncan is proud of her district. But she knows that, if the rest of Minnesota doesn’t go for broke like they are, to support the people who are hurting, justice will not be served. 

People stand in a large circle in a field.
Brooklyn Center High School students stand in silence in honor of George Floyd during a protest organized by students at the high school across the street from the Brooklyn Center Police Department on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News