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Minneapolis Public Schools plan threatens award-winning Northside robotics team

Patrick Henry's engineering students volunteer thousands of hours tutoring younger students, and the school robotics team has made world championships 11 times since 2008.

Patrick Henry's engineering students volunteer thousands of hours tutoring younger students, and the school robotics team has made world championships 11 times since 2008.

Patrick Henry High School boasts one of the most decorated urban robotics teams in America.

Since 2008 team “Herobotics” has been competing in the FIRST Robotics Competition, a league comprised of thousands of teams across 30-some countries that build and program large metal robots to race obstacle courses, score balls into goals, and balance on beams. Herobotics has competed in world championships 11 of those 12 years, most recently qualifying just last month.

The students and teachers of Henry’s engineering department are also responsible for founding the Minneapolis Urban Robotics Alliance. In 2015, they won grants to reopen the once-defunct Lincoln Junior High School as a robotics campus with a practice field and machine shop now used by teams from all over the state.

Over the last five years, students have volunteered 10,000 hours to coach and judge FIRST Lego League, where grade-school kids race six-inch tall Lego robots.

In a hallway lined with trophy cases showing off awards in football, basketball, marching band, and other feats of strength and wit, Herobotics gets its own cabinet laden with accolades. It’s a key source of pride for a school designated “racially isolated” by law because 91 percent of students are people of color, while 68 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“People say, ‘Herobotics is everywhere.’ And that’s a compliment, meaning they’re seen at a lot of events throughout the community,” says engineering department chair David Sylvestre, who’s been with Minneapolis Public Schools 20 years.

Yet Henry’s robotics dominance may be coming to an unexpected end.

Minneapolis Public Schools is currently holding listening sessions on a broad plan to restructure the district called Comprehensive District Design, which was introduced in April 2019 and will be voted on by the school board next month.

The plan intends to distribute resources more equitably throughout the district and improve outcomes for students of color by breaking up K-8 schools and moving magnets – programs dedicated to accelerated study in a certain subject, such as a foreign language or performing arts – out of the wealthier schools of southwest Minneapolis to the center of the city. (A spokesman for MPS says he doesn’t know how magnets got clustered in southwest Minneapolis in the first place.)

Changes proposed for high schools include downsizing the number of technology programs, which are currently offered in many schools across the city, and concentrating them in “tech centers” at North, Edison, and Roosevelt High Schools. The district initially thought North – currently under-enrolled at 18 percent – would have the capacity to host the sole tech center, but eventually decided to distribute courses across two other sites.

That means Patrick Henry would lose its engineering classes.

Robotics teachers may be transferred to another school if they have seniority, while those who don’t may be “excessed” – meaning their positions would be eliminated. Herobotics may lose the 3-D printer -- one paid for by the districts, as was its machine shop --  its engineering department wrote grants to obtain. Incoming freshmen who are passionate about engineering may have to choose between their studies and their “PHamily” – the system of neighborhood feeder schools around which Henry has fomented an identity.

Herobotics could stay as an after-school activity. But without daytime classes for students to learn the principles they’d then apply to building competitive robots, the future of the team itself is in question, says robotics teacher Latoya Grier, who may be excessed.

“Without the 3-D printer, would we actually be able to sustain the club?” she asks, pointing out that Herobotics funds almost everything else independently, raising $40,000 a year through grants, donations, and corporate sponsorships to register and send students to competitions.

Teacher Lars Peterson, who may also lose his position, says he can appreciate the district’s vision of consolidated tech centers.

“It could be kind of neat to step into a space that’s dedicated to career tech ed. It would be like walking into a science museum, all things science. It could be an inspiring space to be in.”

However, he worries that taking engineering out of Henry would sever opportunities for students who are casually interested in science to learn more about robotics.

“It’s also nice to have students who aren’t acquainted with these programs kind of poke their head in and ask questions, ‘What is that, what are you guys doing in there?’ It’s a nice way to recruit students.”

This year as the district continues to field feedback from teachers and parent on the pros and cons of district redesign, Henry students are building a small boat that can harvest plastic from lakes, and sending solar power generators to Kenya to light schools without electricity.

Whatever happens, department chair Slyvestre hopes the district will recognize that robotics is engrained in Henry’s culture.

“It is PHamily. There are a lot of roots here. We’re a part of pep fest here. It’s not like just an afterschool program. Herobotics is integral to what we’re doing here.”

According to the district’s modeling, both Patrick Henry and North High would increase enrollment under the proposed changes. Henry would remain racially isolated at 91 percent, and the percent of students receiving free and reduced lunch would increase to 73 percent.

Watch district administrators discuss high school redesign here.

District administration had planned to offer a formal recommendation to the school board at its Committee of the Whole meeting on March 24, and the board was going to vote on the Comprehensive District Design in April.

However, Minneapolis schools will be out until April 6 in response to coronavirus, and the next board meeting is scheduled for April 14. In the meantime, schools will provide free food to students 18 years and younger. More information on that here