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Surprise gift sets Minneapolis North High seniors on the path to success

The Pillsbury United Communities money is the lifeline for a senior class that persevered through a string of tragedies, including COVID-19 and the George Floyd murder and aftermath.

Jordan Ortiz is one of almost 100 North High students to receive $10,000 in tuition money thanks to a $1 million gift from Pillsbury United Communities.
Jordan Ortiz is one of almost 100 North High students to receive $10,000 in tuition money thanks to a $1 million gift from Pillsbury United Communities.
Courtesy of Jordan Ortiz

Jordan Ortiz loves to fly.

But Ortiz, 18, a senior at Minneapolis’ North Community High School, is not content to sit in just any seat on the plane. There’s one seat she has her sights set on … the captain’s seat.

But the odds looked long for the soon-to-be graduate.

Ortiz, a native of Ecuador, is seeking to join a profession that has longed locked out women, with just more than 9% of all pilots female. For Latina women, just 1%. But that didn’t deter Ortiz from her dream.

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“The first time I came to America I was 9 (years old) and I came from Ecuador and when I flew I just fell in love with flying,” said Ortiz.

That love only grew stronger as the north Minneapolis senior approached graduation. And while Ortiz was accepted into Minnesota State University, Mankato — the only four-year accredited flight program in the state — she feared she wouldn’t be able to enroll due to costs. A year’s tuition for a full-time student comes in at just under $10,000.

“I wasn’t getting much money from the school (Mankato) because they said my family had money to pay tuition, but that was based off of last year’s income and that was a one-time increase,” said Ortiz. “I was really worried about how I was going to pay for college.”

Those worries eased significantly when all North seniors were summoned to school’s auditorium for a special announcement. That April 15 announcement brought Ortiz — and others — to tears.

The announcement was a $1 million gift from Pillsbury United Communities (PUC) to the graduating senior class. With a total of almost 100 students affected, that amounted to $10,000 in tuition money apiece. For Ortiz it means her first year of school is covered. It means she’s one step closer to becoming a pilot.

“I was literally crying,” she said. “Before I was stressed out. I didn’t have any scholarships … not one. This will give me the start I need. It’s a beginning.”

The PUC gift is the lifeline for a senior class that persevered through a string of tragedies. These graduating seniors were just sophomores when the world changed — twice.

In March 2020 the then-10th-graders left school for what they thought was a two-week extended spring break — a “minor” precaution due to the surging and then novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Two weeks turned into a year and a half. The remainder of 2020 and almost their entire junior were carried out online with the challenges of finding solitary spaces and issues of connectivity to contend with.

Also, 2020 was the year of George Floyd.

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As part of the fallout from the murder of Floyd, Minneapolis Public Schools terminated its relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, thus terminating the official relationship with beloved school resource officer, Charles Adams III, affectionately known to students and staff as “OA.” Adams remained as the school’s varsity football coach, but his presence in the halls was no more. And that removal left students vulnerable to outside threats. Multiple North students fell victim to community violence in the forms of assaults and robberies.

It was the most heinous of outside threats — the killing of North student and athlete, 15-year-old Deshaun Hill — that called on PUC President and CEO Adair Mosley to do more. Already closely allied with North High, Mosley said PUC needed to do more … and do it quickly. PUC’s North News is embedded at the school with the paper’s staff offering journalism instruction to students (prior to joining MinnPost, Harry Colbert Jr. served as the editor-in-chief of North News).

“After the terrible loss of Deshaun Hill I recognized this school is going through unconscionable events of shock, grief and trauma,” said Mosley, a MinnPost board member. “We had to do something at the scale of the event. We needed a ‘shockwave’ of hope.”

Within 45 days of Hill’s murder, Mosley and PUC raised the million dollars to gift to North’s seniors. The money came from funders, The Margaret A. Cargill Foundation Fund at the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation, Cargill Foundation, General Mills, McKnight Foundation, Minneapolis Foundation, Minnesota Twins, Target and the U.S. Bank Foundation.

The students have up to one year to decide on how or if they will use the gift. The money is paid directly to the institution of the student’s choice, including trade institutions.

In 2010 North High was on the brink of closure. Enrollment was at an all-time low of 265 students and then Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson proposed closing the school — a proposal that was met with immediate community outrage. With support from community and organizations such as PUC, North has rebounded, though still not to enrollment levels of its heyday.

In just a decade North has also returned as a football powerhouse under Adams III and a basketball juggernaut under Minnesota Hall of Fame coach, Larry McKenzie. Hill, killed Feb. 9, played both football and basketball and was the school’s starting varsity quarterback.

“This school was once written off, so it meant something to intentionally do something for this school in particular,” said Mosley. “For me, as a Northside resident, this was personal.”