This article is part of an occasional series in which Learning Curve is examining the school cultures established by three Minneapolis schools aiming to close the achievement gap.
At a few minutes before 8 a.m., Tom Lachermeier’s class is still slowly waking up. When the bell rings, just six kids are in their seats. Most are eating breakfast and only a couple seem even vaguely aware that Lachermeier is asking them to do something.
That something, on this fourth day of class at Minneapolis’ new, rebirthed North High School, is to draw an image that communicates something about themselves on the cover or in the first few pages of the notebooks Lachermeier is handing out along with boxes of Crayola markers. One boy turns his over and over, apparently mystified as to how to open it.
This is Lachermeier’s advisory group. If everything goes well, he will spend an hour a day with these kids for the next four years, tracking everything from their attendance to what happened last night in some of the city’s poorest, most fragile households.
The idea: No matter how chaotic the rest of their lives, a strong, stable relationship with Lachermeier will be the grounding element that keeps these kids in school and gets them to college. It’s the lynchpin to a seven-point strategy for turning the school around, and the centerpiece of the culture North’s new team has spent the summer envisioning.
North is one of several schools opening in Minneapolis this fall where a distinctive, deliberate culture is being seeded. Increasingly, education reformers understand that a strong culture is one of a handful of elements that a school must have if it is to enable large numbers of impoverished kids to succeed.
MinnPost will spend time in three of those schools this year, reporting as their cultures stagnate or flourish. The first two programs profiled were charter schools, a high school that is attempting to replicate a highly successful Chicago program and a homegrown middle school that has borrowed promising elements from a number of schools.
Revolutionizing an existing culture
North, which had and lost a strong and proud culture, is in some ways the most interesting. It’s one thing to innovate when you can start fresh. It’s another entirely to try to revolutionize an existing culture — one reason the failing school turnarounds mandated by federal education policy have been such a disappointment.
Minneapolis Public Schools has gambled on North, big time. A year and a half ago it brought an outside consultant into a neighborhood that’s fed up with outsiders and tasked it with creating a reborn school over which the community would feel ownership.
Based in New York, the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) boasts an impressive track record. Using the advisory-based model of “distributed counseling,” among other strategies, it has guided the rebirth of 67 failing high schools throughout the country.
Students in ISA’s trademark small schools are 49 percent less likely to drop out. Across the network, 79 percent graduate. And 97 percent of graduates who enroll in college stay there.
Breakfast and a discussion about homecoming
Right now, college seems pretty abstract compared to a skirmish under way to determine who will control Lachermeier’s 45-minute morning advisory. The kids who are fully awake are wolfing down breakfast sandwiches, alternating between talking about football, an institution at North, and busting Lachermeier’s chops while they eat.
One boy, whom we’ll call Melvin, says he’s dying to play Patrick Henry High. Another, whom we’ll call Quan, says he can’t wait for homecoming, although he seems unsure what homecoming is.
“Go ahead and break it down,” Lachermeier suggests.
“No,” Quan retorts, grinning at his classmates. “You break it down. You’re the teacher.”
Lachermeier doesn’t react. “Who knows what alumni means? I went to Wayzata …”
“Wayzata? We bust Wayzata. They suck.”
“People care a lot about this school,” Lachermeier continues, undaunted. “Did you know the most millionaires graduated from this school?”
Getting the football form squared away
Melvin gets up and makes for the door. He wants to deal with a form that needs to be turned in so he can play football and he’s freaked out he’s going to miss his chance. Quan eggs him on.
The form is mostly blank. The boy asked his grandmother to fill it in, but all she wrote was his name. He’s unsure what the rest of the spaces are asking for but does know he needs a doctor to sign it—something he seems to regard as an impossibility.
Lachermeier suggests he could get it taken care of right away, downstairs at the in-school NorthPoint clinic. The picture of calm, he asks the boy to wait while he calls down.
By now, Quan is punctuating every remark Lachermeier makes with an antagonistic quip. He’s throwing his hands up dramatically, insinuating that the teacher is stopping Melvin from getting his form turned in.
Melvin just looks confused. Lachermeier makes eye contact with him, keeping his voice friendly and low. “I can’t send you somewhere if there’s no one there,” he says.
Sharing the notebooks
Finally, Lachermeier makes Quan the center of attention, asking him to explain the coloring he’s done in his notebook, which consists of a different colored triangle on each of the page’s four tips. The first is pink.
“Break it down,” Lachermeier repeats.
“That’s for breast cancer awareness.”
“Oh. Tell me what you know about breast cancer awareness.”
“Yeah, my grandma died of that.”
“Oh yeah? How long ago?”
“Um, she was in the hospital.”
Quan sits back and listens quietly while the other kids describe their doodles. He may not realize it, but Round One just went to Lachermeier.
History — and dead space
Everywhere you turn at North there’s history, much of it proud, and there’s dead space. The corridor where numerous cases burst with Polars trophies leads now past the pennant-ringed gym to another corridor, which leads to another, which leads to a staircase, which finally leads to the classrooms where North Community High School Academy of Arts & Communications has set up shop.
The campus was built to serve 1,700 students plus an array of community programming, including the district’s television station and KBEM. The portions occupied by students are bright and inviting, but the rest feels a little post-apocalyptic.
When she visited on the first day of school, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson was unable to find the rooms being used by the cohort of students still in the former program, renamed North Senior Academy, so as to not call it the “old North.”
To get from the slivers of the building where classes are now held to the beloved jazz station you have to go through darkened, ballroom-sized canyons lined with dozens of rows of unused lockers. It could be a visual metaphor for the surrounding neighborhood, which is as depopulated as the school.
Previous administrations shrugged at the school’s decline and over the last decade fully half of the north side’s mostly African-American kids left for charter, suburban or parochial schools. Unable to justify keeping the building open for a couple hundred kids, Minneapolis Public Schools announced its closing.
Rebellion and reconsideration
Dropout factory or not, the community rebelled and the district reconsidered. After this cycle was replayed a couple of times there were even fewer families willing to invest in a school that seemed doomed. In March of 2011, Johnson made the angry community a proposal: If the loyal opposition would step up, recruit a 2012 freshman class and collaborate with ISA on designing the school north-siders wanted to see, MPS would give North’s rebirth its best shot.
A veteran principal, Dr. Shawn Harris-Berry was hired away from Whittier, one of the city’s most economically and racially balanced elementary schools. She in turn hired a staff of 11, all of whom wanted to work at the new North, in contrast to the region’s legacy as the part of the city teachers with seniority often bid out of.
ISA assigned a coach to Harris-Berry, who made several trips to New York for training. Once she’d assembled a staff, the entire team traveled back east together for a marathon planning session in which they talked about how to create a culture centered on ISA’s model.
One of them was Krista Vande-Vegte, formerly the special-ed teacher at Whittier. When she heard Harris-Berry was leaving, Vande-Vegte begged to go with her.
Both were thrilled. Harris-Berry had long appreciated Vande-Vegte’s approach to dealing with the special-ed kids with the toughest diagnosis, emotional-behavioral disorder, or EBD. And ever so slightly burned out, Vande-Vegte viewed the chance to help design a school from the ground up as the opportunity of her career.
‘We wanted to be part of something that’s bigger than us’
“Everyone thought I was crazy when I bid in,” she said. “But that was the motivation for all of us. We wanted to be a part of something that’s bigger than us.”
In most schools, special-ed teachers pull kids who need services out of regular classes for differing periods of time. That’s not the plan at North, where Vande-Vegte will float through other classes helping the teachers learn to use specialized techniques to reach everyone.
“Most behavior is the result of not getting a need met,” she said. “Kids who go through traumatic events, it triggers something later on. By the third time the teacher has asked you to put your pencil down, that triggers them. No one likes to feel defeated.”
Teachers will meet sometimes daily to talk about who’s struggling and how to help. They will have continual training and input from counselors, and from the nonprofit school turnaround organization whose model they are using.
Just as they sat together as a team over the summer and schemed about North’s new culture, the teachers are using advisory time in these early days to engage the kids in the process of setting expectations, or “essential agreements.”
Vande-Vegte’s advisory group spent the morning discussing whether students should raise their hands if they wanted to speak. Yes, the kids initially responded, apparently assuming that was the right answer. Her response: “Do we? There are only eight of us.”
Afterward, they watched a CNN clip that had several short news segments. As she set the screen up, Vande-Vegte told the students that their “exit ticket” was to tell her or Counselor Derek Francis about one of the current events they’d hear about.
This quickly starts to appear ambitious. A couple of minutes in, Francis started marking every change of topic: “This is another story.”
Hurricane story clicked
A story on truancy — “Students say they skip because school doesn’t connect with their lives” — drew blank stares, as did one on the GOP convention. Heads swiveled, however, when dramatic footage of Hurricane Isaac’s Louisiana landfall came on.
One boy has cousins in Mississippi, who’d called the day before. They were scared, he reported.
Francis asks whether anyone remembered another hurricane in New Orleans seven years ago. One girl replied that she was there.
Vande-Vegte asked, “What did you learn?”
The girl just shrugged. She was just back there a couple of weeks ago, she finally allowed.
“The kids are shell-shocked,” Vande-Vegte said later. “This is going to look very different in two months.”
A different social ecosystem
Particularly in contrast to other brand-new Minneapolis schools that are approaching culture very intentionally as a key element to their strategy for closing the achievement gap, the social ecosystem under formation is hard to see, literally, at North.
At both Adelante College Prep and Minneapolis College Prep, both offshoots of odds-beating charter schools, the hyper-disciplined cultures being forged include not just uniforms, but expectations that shirts will be tucked in and pants belted at the waist. There are rules for walking in the halls, how to sit and how to speak.
The purpose is two-fold: Not only does the expectation of order relieve teachers of the burden of incessant correction and redirection; it tells students that corners will not be cut. At Adelante, day one feels like boot camp. At MCP, it’s more like college orientation.
Lachermeier’s complete non-response to Quan’s goading is 180 degrees from these approaches — on purpose. If the teacher had taken the bait, it would have resulted in a blow-up, Vande-Vegte insisted. And in another school his explosion would have ended up in an in-school suspension, which kids like him often find easier than staying class.
In her opinion, Lachermeier likely just blew Quan’s mind. And Quan probably has no idea how much he just gave away in return.
“It’s a little piece of the kid, and that’s the goal,” she said. “He now knows something about that kid that’s a lens into that kid’s life and the traumatic events in it.”
The intended bedrock of this culture: That there is an adult in every student’s life who sees the students them first thing in the morning, learns what happened, or didn’t, at home last night while they wake up over breakfast and then checks out with them at the end of the day.
School purposely kept small
Because this is dependent on the school remaining small, no more than 100 students will be admitted to each grade. And so, no matter how successful the new school is, it will never fill this beloved and betrayed building.
Over the summer, MPS staff literally pounded the pavement recruiting a freshman class that size. They went to community events, knocked on doors and cajoled kids who signed up into lobbying their friends. In the space of two months, the number of kids enrolled rose from 60 to 100.
On the first day of school, 60 showed up. As soon as those whot did had been directed to their advisories, Harris-Berry and her staff went in search of the rest. By Thursday, attendance had actually fallen to 56, but light had been shed on the gap.
Seven or eight of the no-shows had enrolled elsewhere. The phone numbers listed by an astonishing 20 had been disconnected in the few short weeks between recruitment and the first week of school. Others probably did not realize school started before Labor Day.
Late the morning of day four, Francis appears outside the wall of windows that separates Harris-Berry’s fish-bowl office from a classroom on one side and a teacher conference room on the other. He’s out of breath.
A teenage boy wandered in a few minutes ago and asked to enroll. Does he have to send him over to district headquarters and wait for official word, or can he strike while the iron is hot?
Harris-Berry doesn’t hesitate. Give the boy a tour and hand him a schedule, she says.