When the 2016 graduation rates were released last month, an onslaught of celebratory press releases quickly followed. Last year, schools set a new statewide record, at 82.2 percent, according to the state Department of Education.
Graduation gaps between students of color and their white peers have continued to shrink — but education leaders are nowhere close to calling victory on this front. While white students had an 87 percent graduation rate and Asian/Pacific Islander students had an 83.6 graduation rate, black and Hispanic students still lagged behind with closer to 65 percent of each subgroup graduating. For American Indian students, only 52.6 percent got their high school diploma last year.
So when Minneapolis Public Schools touted an 81.5 percent graduation rate at the nearly shuttered North High School — an increase of more than 39 percentage points over the last two years, at a school where black students made up roughly 90 percent of the student body in 2016 — it raised a simple question: How’d they do it?
First off, it’s important to note that North has the advantage of small class sizes. Of the 65 senior students who were expected to graduate last school year, 53 graduated on time, according to state data. Looking at this year’s incoming freshman class — 122 students — it’s apparent that North is in the midst of a revival.
Back in 2010, the district had considered closing the school because of declining enrollment and poor academic outcomes. In response to impassioned pleas from the community to keep the doors open, it ended up investing in an effort to rebuild the school. That included bringing in new leadership. When Shawn Harris-Berry came on board four years ago, she hand-selected a team of educators who were willing to fully immerse themselves in the rebuilding of North.
Today, the school has positioned itself as a small, college-preparatory community school that prioritizes building relationships and one-on-one advising. It also seeks to boost student engagement through its arts and communication academy and the newly launched Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) academy, which will expand as the ninth-graders currently enrolled move through high school.
A Star Tribune article at the start of the school year highlighted the recent uptick in enrollment numbers at North — close to 400 students on the first day of school, compared to just 52 five years ago. Harris-Berry attributed this growth to a number of factors, including recent momentum generated by the school’s sports teams, the designation of a feeder middle school and the renewed push for academic rigor and college prep.
As the school continues to disrupt notions of what it means to go to a community school in North Minneapolis, proud alumni are bringing back their families as well. For example, Omar Brown, 16, recently transferred to North for his 10th-grade year, from Hopkins. Both his mother and grandmother, along with a few cousins, attended North, and they were eager to move back to be closer to family. Brown says his football coach’s advice to him, upon enrolling, was to make sure his academics were in order before he set his sights on any football dreams.
But he’s convinced the school’s recent athletic successes are playing a critical part in boosting school pride and, in turn, graduation rates. “Sports help, too — football and basketball,” he said. “If we go far, the whole community brings it up.”
Azhaela Hanson, 17, came to North her freshman year, after completing middle school at Anwatin, another district school, and attending St. Paul district schools before that. Her family is very involved with the school’s basketball program and she has lots of older cousins and family friends who’ve attended North.
“The way the teachers and kids blend is a big help. We always say it’s like a big family here,” she said, noting this tight-knit culture drew her out of her shy demeanor. “That impacts our education because we can relate to one another. We know what it’s like to feel the way we feel and live the way we live. That makes us whole and comfortable. And if you’re comfortable, you get better learning.”
Advisory periods are key
School pride and a strong sense of community may be enough to help boost enrollment figures, but it takes a lot more to ensure these students are on track to graduate. At North, daily advisory periods lay the foundation for student success.
Each morning, students meet with their designated adviser — a classroom teacher who essentially doubles as an academic coach for a small cohort of 10 to 15 students. The 36-minute period serves as a homeroom of sorts, offering students an opportunity to work on homework assignments while they wait their turn for a one-on-one check-in.
Going through his roster Monday morning, Tom Lachermeier, an AP history and U.S. history teacher, walked students through their individual student trackers on his laptop. Since Mondays are reserved for grade checks, he pulled up their course lists to review their academic standing in each one. Scrolling through the list, he’d stop to discuss a plan to make up any missing assignments — as denoted by a red exclamation point on the screen — and set academic goals with each student, many of whom were within reach of making the A or B honor roll.
It’s a simple strategy — just taking the time to hold students accountable to their coursework and academic progress. But it takes time. Harris-Berry says that in prioritizing an advisory period, they shaved a bit of time off of the other periods, which clock in at 55 minutes on a typical day and 53 minutes on Tuesdays, when students have an extended advisory period to make gains on the coursework flagged the day prior, or to get tutoring help for AP courses.
“No student in North High School can say, ‘I don’t know what grade I’m getting,’” she said.
The impact can be significant. During one of his student check-ins Monday, Lachermeier had a female student express disbelief over how well she was doing. “I thought it was like garbage-can worse,” she said while looking at her academic tracker, laughing and pointing to the trash can next to the desk. Buoyed by the good news, she was encouraged to go after an A in history as well.
For students who are struggling, academically, teachers are better able to leverage parental support by bringing them into the loop early on. Cayla Baumann, a 10th-grade world and AP history teacher, says parents seem to appreciate this proactive approach. “I have a mom that I text every week,” she said. “Her son went from D’s, struggling, [to] now he’s on the B honor roll.”
Like all advisers, Baumann also reviews students’ behavior notes and attendance record — which breaks out each time a student is marked tardy for class — to make sure issues on these fronts aren’t holding them back. But the biggest advantage of the advisory period, she says, is the culture of respect and understanding that it generates.
“Even on their worst days, there’s at least one person they can trust,” she said, noting she’s there to help students troubleshoot problems at home. “To me, it’s like this sacred thing. I’ve been at other schools that haven’t had that. I think it really, really makes a difference.”
On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the advisory periods are dedicated to various activities, like course registration, or specific lessons. For instance, last week students discussed appropriate LGBTQ language.
As a transgender male, Alexx Hopkins, 18, says he appreciates the school’s effort to answer students’ identity-related questions and go over how to ask people “in a nice way” about their preferred names and pronouns. The safe environment, no doubt, is key in allowing him to concentrate on his studies — including the College in the Schools (CIS) writing class he’s currently enrolled in.
Pushing academic rigor
In addition to a core of dedicated teachers and staff who are committed to getting to know their students — both in school during their check-ins and in class, and out of school at students’ extra curricular activities — Harris-Berry also credits the school’s emphasis on college-prep with improving graduation rates.
This correlation should come as no surprise. State data show that high school students who participate in college-level courses — like the AP, CIS and PSEO courses offered at North — are more likely to graduate. And success in these courses has the potential to instill students, especially those whose parents didn’t attend college, with the self-confidence needed to pursue a postsecondary education.
At North, Harris-Berry is proud of the fact that all students have access to these dual-enrollment opportunities, especially those typically underrepresented in such classes like black students and special education students.
Inside Tina Schaefer’s CIS writing class on Monday, for instance, Hopkins was one of 10 students circled up for instructions on completing their ethnography projects. He admits he’s been procrastinating a bit on his own interviews with single working women, but he’s confident he’ll be able to pull things together before the deadline. This isn’t his first time taking a college level course, after all. He took a few AP courses last year as well.
“They expect more out of us,” he said of his teachers.
Those high expectations, in turn, seem to have carried over to peer relationships as well. Rather than feeling isolated as a student of color in a CIS course, Hopkins says he turns to his classmates for support. On the first day of this writing course, for instance, they initiated a group text chain so they could troubleshoot and help each other out outside of class.
“Instead of letting people fall, we always bring each other up,” he said.
Baumann says this is her first year teaching an AP course, and the motivation to do so came from the fact that students are asking for more advanced course options. The earlier they can expose students to these types of courses, the better, she says, because it gives teachers ample time to prepare them for success, whether that means passing the AP test or navigating a college course all on their own once they graduate from high school.
Last year, close to 97 percent of students applied to a postsecondary institution, Harris-Berry said. She points to the advisory and the AchieveMpls Career and College Center as two elements that have been key in upping expectations at North.
“We also thought it was very important, when we designed the school, to make sure our students’ first encounter with college-level work was with teachers they know,” she said. “We want that to happen here versus when they go to school and spend thousands of dollars on a class without knowing the expectations, the homework load.”
So far, at least anecdotally, investing in all of this scaffolding seems to be paying off. Harris-Berry says it’s common for recent alumni who are currently enrolled in a postsecondary institution to come back to North for continued guidance, whether it be calling on their high school adviser for help completing their FAFSA application, or asking a former English teacher to help proofread a college essay. “We’re still supporting our students, even after they have left us and gone on to college,” she said. “That relationship is very, very strong.”
What’s a North H.S. diploma worth?
Looking at last year’s graduation rate, Harris-Berry says she was actually disappointed because she had expected the number to be higher. It doesn’t include, for instance, the three students who crossed the finish line after completing summer school. And because of the way the district tracks students, they were penalized for a student who transferred out and finished the last year at a private school, as well as a handful of special education students who are continuing their secondary education through the transition plus program, which they’re eligible to enroll in through age 21.
But she realizes that a high school diploma doesn’t mean much if students who hold one aren’t prepared to enter college or the workforce. That’s why, for instance, the school has embedded writing skills throughout the curriculum. “We know that writing is a way to keep kids in college,” she said. “You can get there, but if you can’t write, you can’t sustain yourself.”
The school’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment proficiency scores in reading and math last year — just 5 percent and 7 percent, respectively — indicate that there’s still plenty of room for improvement. But Harris-Berry isn’t placing too much stock in test scores, which she’s said can be misleading because of the high number of students who opt out.
In the coming years, she has her sights set on tracking how North graduates are faring in college, as a more accurate indicator of how well the new school model is working. Are they sticking with it? Are they having to take remedial coursework?
“It’s really beyond getting our students to graduate,” she said. “We want our students to leave here … and decide, ‘Where do I want to go? What are my aspirations?’ And that’s determined by their desires, not their limitations.”