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An inside look at what Harding High School is doing right

U of M professor Peter Demerath just spent four years evaluating Harding High School; he found a lot to like about the staff’s shared beliefs toward student capabilities.

Harding High School
Harding High School

I am a professor of education at the University of Minnesota and have been conducting anthropological research and evaluation at Harding Senior High School during the last four years. I’ve also been a guest teacher in a couple of classes there. 

Recently, many St. Paul Public Schools have been asked to implement the Strong Schools Strong Communities (SSSC) 2.0 full inclusion plan, which has been challenging for some, given limited resources and an ambitious timeline. My work at Harding has given me an insider’s perspective on how a school can proactively meet challenges and find academic successes.        

Harding High School is the largest Title I grade 9-12 school in the state, with 83 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch. Not only does the school serve breakfast and lunch to students in need, it also serves dinner. Forty percent of the students are English Language Learners, and each incoming ninth-grade class has students who are at anywhere from a 4th to a 12th grade reading level.  

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One way to think about the quality of education is whether it can be “the great equalizer.” Harding shows that it can be. Our success was recognized in December 2013 when the Minnesota Department of Education identified it as a “Celebration School” under the state’s Multiple Measurement Rating system.  

Wilder Research recently reported that Harding also scored well above the state average in all nine areas related to the implementation of Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) – a key instructional framework adopted by the Minnesota Department of Education to help close achievement gaps. 

Harding was recently identified by the SPPS Superintendent in a recent forum on addressing achievement gaps as a “Beating the Odds School.” 

Here’s why. First, during the last seven years Harding has had a steady rise in its reading scores on the MCA assessment. (The principal says making sure Harding ELL students learn to read is like “getting oxygen to them.”). Second, the school’s focus on college and career readiness has put thousands of former and current students on the pathway for some sort of postsecondary education or training, which will lead to better job and career opportunities. And while Harding graduates continue to be admitted to the most selective colleges in the U.S., there have also been huge increases in the scholarship money they have been awarded: from a total of $864,000 for the class of 2005 to $13,500,000 for the class of 2014 (an average of $34,615 per student). 

Peter Demerath
Courtesy of Peter Demerath
Peter Demerath

One of the biggest challenges facing schools like Harding is how to best transition students with special needs from self-contained classrooms to regular classrooms, a key emphasis of SSSC 2.0. The transition period can be difficult and frustrating for students and is when they are most likely to cause disruptions in the school. In talking about one such student, the Harding principal recently explained, “He didn’t have the tools yet to cope with the change in environments.” 

Notice the principal’s use of the word “yet”? It’s important because it hints at the key strength of Harding’s culture: strong shared beliefs in student capabilities. This frame of mind assumes that intelligence is malleable and can grow. If a student doesn’t learn something immediately, a teacher will create conditions that will enable the student to eventually learn it. This is one of several important non-cognitive factors associated with school success that have been identified by researchers; others include developing student “academic mindsets,” “grit,” and a strong sense of “school belonging.” 

How it cultivates these capabilities

My research at Harding has involved interviews, observations, and visits with a diverse group of African American, Asian American, Native American, Latino, and European American staff, and a similarly diverse group of seniors from the classes of 2014 and 2015.  It has illuminated several ways that Harding staff has cultivated these capabilities:

  • By getting to know students and using that familiarity to make them feel like they belong in their classrooms.
  • By connecting classroom learning to student interests and aspirations. In the last two years I have interviewed Harding seniors with interests in all sorts of areas, including pediatric medicine in East Africa; business; radiology; pediatric medicine with young teenage mothers; global exploration; journalism; artistic development at Disney; and public speaking for social justice.
  • By structuring learning activities and classroom interactions so that student confidence can be developed.  

These teachers give students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, which is vital in developing perseverance. They don’t judge students but build them up.

Students, in turn, describe their teachers as going “above and beyond,” and mention how much they appreciate their teachers that would “clear out their schedule to help you.” They also value teachers that help them get “a good perspective on things,” and especially those that “see something in me that I sometimes forget – my potential.”  

One said that before starting to work with one of the school’s counselors that he “didn’t consider college much,” but now has scholarship offers from two of the most selective colleges in the U.S. Another said, “I love my teachers.”

One senior’s advice to next year’s freshmen? “Don’t be afraid to fail – failing is part of the process.” 

Emphasis on mutual respect and caring

Much of this positivity is due to the school’s emphasis on mutual respect and caring. Harding T-shirts distributed to staff last August had this year’s theme on the back: Grounded in Strengths. One teacher told me, simply, “Here, we respect everyone.” 

Another side of the Harding staff commitment to students was on display last week during the annual “Senior Dinner,” where, after serving a meal to the graduating class, a group of teachers put on a performance (a mix of group biography and staff talent show). One of the highlights was when a science teacher, himself a Harding graduate, came out and lip-synched a fully committed performance of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” while clinging to a hanging metal ball contraption that he and his dad had built the previous weekend. The seniors were on their feet in a screaming frenzy. 

Another key Harding strength is the staff commitment to professional learning and problem solving. For the last 18 months, I have attended countless meetings where Harding teachers and administrators have rolled up their sleeves, consulted data, and tirelessly talked about how to find solutions to problems.  

In talking with these teachers, it was clear that the pace at which they have been asked to implement the SSSC 2.0 full inclusion model has put them under stress. Still, they have come together in two major meetings in the last three weeks to generate constructive solutions to the challenges facing the school. Virtually all of this work involves crossing racial lines. Toward that end, Harding teachers continue to grapple with how their assumptions, experiences, and racial identities impact their relationships with students and classroom environments.

While learning about all of this has been fascinating and inspiring, one of the biggest days for me at Harding was last year when an administrative assistant gave me a staff restroom key. I was proud to have some sort of membership in this school that I admire so much and is doing such great things.

Teachers tend to stay

Teachers themselves hardly ever leave Harding to work for another school. At the school’s annual end-of-year staff gathering last week, several retiring teachers were in tears as they talked about how much the school, the students and their staff colleagues meant to them. 

SSSC 2.0 is the right direction for St. Paul Public Schools because it holds the promise of accelerating learning for as many students as possible. To her credit, Superintendent Silva has indicated that the district will do well to rethink how it is implemented. In my view this should include making the transition of ELL and SPED students to regular classrooms more deliberate, with more professional support and more professional development for teachers on culturally responsive classroom leadership, and acknowledging that the regular classroom will not be the optimal learning environment for all students. 

In the meantime, I’m planning to return to Harding in the fall to share with the staff what I’ve learned from my research. I’m confident the school will have made progress in figuring out how to better implement the core principles of SSSC 2.0. I hope I won’t have to give my key back. 

Peter Demerath is an associate professor in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development, and an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of “Producing success: The culture of personal advancement in an American high school” (2009, University of Chicago Press). 


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