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Patrick Henry: What a North Side public school can teach Minnesota

Margaret Campbell is a Patrick Henry junior involved in the Step Team, YMCA Beacons, Black Student Union, Girls in Action, and the student council.

Margaret Campbell is a Patrick Henry junior involved in the Step Team, YMCA Beacons, Black Student Union, Girls in Action, and the student council.

When Margaret Campbell completed eighth grade, she knew she was bound for Patrick Henry High in north Minneapolis. Her father was a proud graduate. She didn’t really have a choice.

Her middle school friends were pretty mean about it. “Henry was viewed as not the greatest school, people are stupid, there’s fights and stuff like that,” Campbell says. “People thought Henry sucked, because it’s on the North Side.”

Now a junior, Campbell is certain that Patrick Henry is the best school in Minneapolis. U.S. News and World Report would agree with her. The magazine recognized Henry as the third best high school in Minnesota this year. It’s the only public school in Minneapolis or St. Paul to be ranked, and it beat out charters and much wealthier suburban districts.

The stats are impressive. Whereas Minneapolis schools average 29 percent proficiency in reading and 16 percent in math, Henry scores 40 and 47 percent, respectively. All students are required to take at least two rigorous college credit courses in order to graduate, a factor in Henry's exceptional college readiness scores.

“A lot of people think that Henry shouldn’t be on top of its game, and that’s why we’re getting recognized,” Campbell says. “Even when we’re just up to par with basically what we’re supposed to be doing, it’s a shock to most people.”

Yusuf Abdullah, Henry's new principal, credits his predecessor Latanya Daniels for the school's rise away from from troubling dropout rates and truancy. 

Patrick Henry in north Minneapolis was named the third best school in the state.

Patrick Henry in north Minneapolis was named the third best school in the state.

It was her "teaching up" vision that opened up the college credit programs to all students. A once-controversial initiative to hire a black male coordinator to lead a special prep class has improved the results for black boys.  

Henry was the first Minneapolis school to extend the day to seven periods, giving teachers more time to collaborate and help kids forge connections between subjects. It's also one of the first schools in the world to offer college level courses with a focus on engineering and digital media. And ever since Henry hired a new literacy coordinator who insisted on setting aside time every day for silent reading, test scores have steadily risen.

"Having a creative mind, collaborative effort, and believing there are no real limits unless you set limits for yourself is an opportunity for a school to thrive regardless of public, charter, private," Abdullah says. "We do have some concerns we wanna address, but we’re going to do it and make gains in the right direction."

Teachers at Henry feel that their principal supports their work, says academics coordinator Chad Owens. All principals in recent memory have advocated hard for shifting resources toward smaller class sizes so teachers can build personal relationships with students. Teachers pay the respect forward, volunteering for extracurricular activities. 

"I've helped run the National Honors Society for six or seven years and I don't know if I'm paid for it. I don't think that I am," Owens says. "But I'm dedicated to my students and that's just a story that repeats over and over again. Kickboxing, anime, GLBT, debate, chess clubs, they're all just volunteer hours by teachers who have a passion for something and get involved." 

When it comes to athletics, Henry has a head football coach who presides over hours of studying in a classroom before the team gets to go to a game. 

Owen's selling point to parents — and naysayers in other districts — is that diversity works. Henry is 45 percent African-American, 36 percent Asian, 8 percent Hispanic, and 9 percent Caucasian. 

"Everyone at work talks about how far we are from our real goals," Owens says. "We’ve got a very diverse school. We do our best to support all students, and it’s working pretty well. I don’t know that charter schools or other districts can offer that."

For Campbell, the awards and honors are validation. "It definitely doesn't get enough credit," she says of Henry. "It's not as safe as it could be, but we're going a little bit above and beyond other schools that are underserved like us, and we do deserve the recognition. It’s already hard enough for us to do great, and when we do well with tests and grades, it shows. It means more."