Prior to the destruction of Minnesota Transitions Charter School’s Secondary School (MTS) amid the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd, both Shawn Fondow and Brian Lloyd, the principal and dean of students of the school respectively, knew the school had to make some changes. But it took the combination of a pandemic and days of civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd to realize what those changes needed to be.
The school, which is located in a strip mall across the street from the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct headquarters, was destroyed along with other nearby stores whose damage also received significant media attention, namely a Target and an Aldi. MTS, one of the Minnesota Transitions Charter School’s eight schools, serves students from grades 7-12, with approximately 34% of the student population hailing from surrounding south Minneapolis.
While a new school was under construction, many students shifted to remote learning or attending classes in-person held temporarily at the Mall of America. But after months of design and construction led by DLR Group, an engineering and architecture firm, the school reopened earlier this month with 100 students attending classes in person.
Staying in the neighborhood
On the day after MTS was set ablaze — there were twenty-seven fires set inside the building — Fondow along with the then superintendent surveyed the damage in the school. While the sprinkler system had put out every fire, the flood of water that remained made much of the school unsalvageable. Fondow walked the premises in his winter boots, to find that a combination of 85 degree weather and inches of water had led to a proliferation of mold. There was not much left that could be salvaged. But one thing remained clear, said both Fondow and Lloyd — the school had to be rebuilt in the same spot.
“The significance of us staying here, especially with everything that happened with George Floyd and the civil unrest in the area, really affected the community in a huge way. The community was hurting after that,” said Lloyd. “I thought it was important for us to stay in the community so that we felt what they were feeling and for them to know that we’re going to ride this out with them and stay in the area.”
Many of the schools’ families were directly impacted by the events that sparked the unrest, said Lloyd. “Some of the kids who used to go to school have been victims of police brutality and have had issues with the police. So when everything happened, it was like a culmination of everything happening at once.”
In the weeks following the destruction, the school held a food drive for the nearby community, which included many of their students. With many of the local grocery stores now boarded up, the neighborhood had become a food desert. The drive was part of the healing process for the staff as much as for the community, said Courtney Stenseth, a social worker at the school.
“I think it helped us build more community with our families,” said Stenseth. “We really want it to be a school community and feel like and feel like every, every family, every student matters.”
Rebuilding with purpose
Now with a chance to rebuild, the school’s administration saw an opportunity to give the students a building that was a better fit.
“We had the idea of how can we make it more like a coffee shop or college campus to honor our students, like the young adults that they have to be in their everyday lives,” said Fondow. “So we took this tragedy and turned it into an opportunity to take really every single wall out of this space, with the exception of the kitchen and the gym.”
Within weeks the school partnered up with the DLR Group, and set up meetings to keep students and parents involved with the rebuilding process.
“Not long after the destruction, we just rolled up our sleeves and said, you know, how do we get to the heart of this? And we had focus groups. We had long meetings in which people even did sketches in breakout rooms,” said David Loehr, a principal architect with DLR Group who led the project.
And while the pandemic made community involvement more difficult, the school and DLR Group used Zoom to host online meetings and hold follow up conversations with families.
Students appear to be excited about the new space in the weeks since the building reopened, said Fondow. Prior to the destruction of the school, much of the classrooms consisted of a “hodgepodge of things” according to Stenseth.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had a building where we have things that match like we always get second hand stuff, our classrooms never match their office spaces. Now everything looks uniform. It looks clean. And this is a special space,” Stenseth said.
The newly rebuilt school now includes plenty of sunlight from skylights, a music studio, a state of the art high school science lab, a genius tech bar for tech support and an atrium for multipurpose use.
“The school is really about the students and the parent participation and the faculty,” said Loehr. “Throughout the whole space, it’s sort of a light touch on the architecture. Certainly, there’s rooms, but so much of it is flexible and that is intentional. It’s purposeful so that students and the teachers and the faculty and everyone there can adapt and adapt and rearrange and kind of make that space their own.”
Loehr said along with servicing the core programs the school already offers, including science labs and art programs, the design also allows for additional programs that could be added in the future, including a culinary arts program. The total cost of the new building was $7.4 million, paid for partly by the building owner and by insurance proceeds.
What a new school means
More important that the school’s new features is what the new facility means to students in the neighborhood. According to the school, almost 90% of the student body are students of color, with a majority coming from Minneapolis.
Lloyd, who was a student at MTS in the ’90s (the school first opened in 1995), said students in the neighborhood almost never get new facilities. It is more likely for a school in the area to close than for a new one to open, said Lloyd.
“Usually when they open up a school, they’re taking over something that was there for something else, and they converted it into a school or adapted to a school setting, but not a brand new school or a brand new facility built specifically for kids and more specifically,for students of color,” said Lloyd. “So this is huge.”
Along with physical changes, Lloyd said the events following George Floyd’s murder prompted the school to consider policy changes to connect better with their families.
“The pandemic and civil unrest highlighted a lot of disparities in the communities of color, and parents and students have been very vocal about that. And so that has informed the school to start doing equity training among the staff to address those needs with the families,” Lloyd said.
Other changes include monthly parent meetings, an effort to center student voices, and an attempt to return to a culture which emphasized prioritizing relationships with families, which Lloyd said MTC was able to maintain when operating with fewer schools and students.
In the weeks following Floyd’s murder, Lloyd said parents approached school advising administration to return a “family-feel environment.”
“We’re focusing on knocking down roadblocks like, for example, if we have a parent meeting and the parent can’t make it to the conference because of transportation issues, then one of our staff will get the van and bring them over, stuff like that,” said Lloyd.
“And I think that this is one of the biggest things, even more so than the new building, is for us to take a look at how we do business and how we teach kids, and how to set them up for a better chance at success.”