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North High decision offers parents some long-sought certainty

On Tuesday, the Minneapolis School Board approved a proposal from Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson that should put to rest most speculation about the future of North High School. The storied institution is getting a top-to-bottom overhaul, possibly to include a new facility.

Under Johnson’s proposal, Minneapolis Public Schools will sign a contract with the Institute for Student Achievement, a New York nonprofit that specializes in turning failing high schools into rigorous college-prep programs. North will be the group’s first Minnesota school, and ISA will be Minneapolis’ first outside school turnaround consultant.

Possibly because of the availability of federal funds for overhauling schools deemed “persistent” failures, turnaround consultants have sprung up around the country. At least a few weeks ago, however, none were operating in Minnesota, where smaller school districts were more likely to hire retired superintendents to lead turnaround efforts.

Partnered with nearly 80 schools since 1990

Founded in 1990, ISA is no Johnny Come Lately. It has partnered with nearly 80 schools serving 20,000 students in five states, including schools in Atlanta, Detroit and New York.

According to the nonprofit’s website, “ISA schools — often in the most challenging areas where graduation rates have been as low as 35 percent — have graduated as many as 90 percent of their seniors with nearly 90 percent of those graduates going on to college.”

More depth about ISA’s results can be found here.

The announcement gives North’s supporters in the community a major infusion of certainty. Accordingly, board members also agreed to Johnson’s request to extend the deadline for community boosters, district staff and now ISA to recruit a 125-member 2011 freshman class.

Right now, 40 eighth-graders are signed up to start at North next fall, according to MPS spokesman Stan Allyne. Moving the deadline from the end of March to the end of April will give recruiters a better shot at getting the word out about a new North and by extension, a better shot at enticing enough kids for a full class.

If they can’t, after the number of likely recruits is known, ISA will advise Johnson on the pros and cons of starting North’s overhaul with a small freshman class.

ISA works with local community
MPS leaders chose ISA because rather than providing a school design that has proven successful elsewhere, the group works with the local community to create a program that fits on a local level. Minneapolis schools have a history of failing to engage north side residents, who have left the district in droves.

That exodus was the reason district brass first announced — and then rescinded, and then announced and rescinded — its decision to close North in the first place. Six years ago, the school served 1,100 students. This year, it serves 265.

Each closure announcement was met with anger from the north side community. But with little certainty about the future, and dismal student performance on standardized tests, few families were willing to send their ninth-graders to a failing school where they might not be able to finish.

No more, said Allyne. “As many times as we can, we need to reiterate: North is not closing,” he said. “That’s far from the truth. We’re trying to build it up. ... We want to make sure it’s a school anyone, anywhere in the city would choose.”

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