This past winter, St. Paul Central High School made headlines on more than one occasion during a streak of unfortunate events. In December, a student-on-teacher assault in the cafeteria left science teacher John Ekblad with a traumatic brain injury and a grievance against the district, which he’s attempting to sue for allegedly failing to protect teachers from violent students.
On Jan. 13, student Fischer Anderson died at the hospital after going into cardiac arrest at school that Monday. And later that same month, two more students, both seniors, died from medical-related issues.
Students and teachers took an emotional hit, no doubt. But some powerful signs of healing have been buried under subsequent headlines of student violence in area schools and the statewide debate over student discipline.
One such source of positive momentum at Central involves a community-driven effort to beautify school grounds. The Transforming Central project, which has been in the works since 2011, will be entering the implementation stage this summer, just in time for the school’s 150th anniversary this fall. It’s the oldest high school in Minnesota.
Senior Mara Mergens, 18, is among those eager to see the vision come to fruition. That’s why she volunteered to help clean up the tiered garden at the school’s main entrance last Saturday morning.
“In terms of morale, we definitely took a hit [this year]. At the same time, the things that have happened have really brought us together,” she said, taking a short break from digging up brush to make room for new plants. “We want the outside of the school to reflect our experiences on the inside.”
Transforming Central has been a staple in Mergen’s high school experience. A group of parents, students and community members partnered with members of Roots and Shoots and the National Honor Society in the fall of 2011 to plant bulbs and start brainstorming a large-scale exterior makeover for the school building.
Then the Metropolitan Design Center, with the University of Minnesota, conducted a survey of the site and came up with recommendations for improving its aesthetics, functionality and environmental impact.
By Mergen’s freshman year, thanks to a STAR grant from the City of St. Paul, a new fence was installed along Lexington Parkway and Concordia Avenue. But it quickly became apparent that the project was going to involve much more than fences and landscaping.
Thanks to guidance from the Capitol Region Watershed District, the group adopted a plan for solving stormwater runoff issues that were exposing tree roots and compacting soil on campus and carrying sediment into the Mississippi River. The watershed district awarded Transforming Central its first major grants: $10,000 for the feasibility study and another $50,000 for the stormwater retrofit project. An additional $150,000 in grant funding from the watershed district and $175,000 from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources awarded last school year will help further the stormwater system improvements.
“Working on an urban school site where space is really limited, it’s challenging to find opportunities to treat stormwater, so we tried to get innovative and creative while also maintaining the usability of the site,” Nate Zwonitzer, water resource project manager with the Capitol Region Watershed District said.
From there, the project vision grew to include a number of other features. In an effort to better connect students with the outdoors, project planners proposed an outdoor classroom. Building even further upon the educational opportunities provided by the project, two science teachers secured a $42,000 educator’s grant from the Capitol Region Watershed District to purchase curriculum and measurement tools to study the environmental impact of the new stormwater system. Informational signs explaining the stormwater system will also be installed outside.
In addition to more landscaping, project planners have also prioritized improved lighting, a new plaza replete with benches and pervious pavers, and safer pathways — namely formalizing the worn “cow path” that runs from the front entrance to Lexington Parkway.
In total, the project has a $725,000 price tag. To date, planners have raised nearly $596,000 through major donations, grants and individual contributions. The district has also played an integral role, providing personnel support and handling the bidding process for hiring a contractor to carry out the bulk of the work this summer.
In hopes of hitting their goal by the end of the school year, the group recently launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.
“Our students, faculty and alumni take great pride in our school and the success of the fundraising effort shows that we have support beyond our Central family,” Principal Mary Mackbee said. “This project is about creating a sense of pride and opportunity for students, improving the environment and building connections with the community that surrounds our campus.”
‘Good for the soul’
The chair of the Transforming Central volunteer committee, Julie Marckel, celebrated her youngest son’s graduation from Central last year. But she’s stayed committed to the project, much like other parents and students who have invested knowing they, themselves, may only benefit from the finished project as a member of the alumni network.
“This is about a project that can touch lives,” Marckel said, noting a clean, beautiful space can positively impact those who encounter it.
Andrew Dulles, 18, a senior at Central and head of the National Honors Society’s Environmental Committee, says he’s looking forward to visiting campus after he graduates to see an exterior that’s more reflective of his experiences at Central.
“We’re known as a rougher, tougher school. It looks like it from the outside, but doesn’t feel that way on the inside,” he said.
The imposing five-story concrete building is often compared to a prison, Dulles says. But that image doesn’t jibe with the reality of the active student body that it houses.
“I think there’s definitely a part of our population that embraces we’re inner city,” he said. “We embrace the fact that we work for what we have.”
The school boasted a 91 percent graduation rate last year, along with the state’s second largest International Baccalaureate program with 23 students earning full IB diplomas in 2015.
Project participants anticipate the upcoming campus makeover will amplify the academic drive and sense of community at Central.
“The project coming together right now for this school is so timely,” Deb Ahlquist, a parent volunteer, said, adding the new outdoor resources will be “good for the soul of the school.”