Why the Minneapolis schools are better than you think

Patrick Henry High School step team

Patrick Henry High School step team

Outside Sanford Middle School on a spring day, a gaggle of kids play catch and chat. They're a patchwork quilt of black, brown, and white, dressed in everything from hijabs to skater shorts.

These kids would normally be out back, shooting hoops or playing four square. But hovering cranes and the skeleton of a $19 million expansion for Sanford has pushed them to the narrow strip of green space in front.

Nine years ago, this scene would have looked very different.

The school was half the size it is today, with 400 kids who were mostly Somali, part of a sudden infusion of Africans in the mostly white Longfellow neighborhood.

No one from Longfellow sent their kids to Sanford. Instead, as busloads of kids from outside the neighborhood rolled in each morning, busloads of Longfellow kids rolled out. It was as if a color-coded invisible fence had been placed around the school.

That changed with Val Ausland. Nine years ago, her oldest son was finishing up fifth grade at Dowling Elementary and needed a middle school. Sanford's reputation as a "tough school with lots of fights" kept neighborhood families away for years, Ausland says. But she wasn't ready to believe the hype.

Patrick Henry High School teacher Quinton Bonds and his step team

Patrick Henry High School teacher Quinton Bonds and his step team

Instead, Ausland, a beaming woman with a reputation as a volunteer extraordinaire, investigated it herself. A conversation with the principal convinced her that Sanford was trying to change for the better, and that she and her neighbors could help.

And so they did.

Dipping their toe in — and not drowning — prompted other Longfellow families to follow. Since 2010, the school's enrollment has doubled. "We are surrounded by K-8 schools," says Principal Emily Palmer, "but people choose Sanford."

It's a story you never hear about the Minneapolis Public Schools.

The dominant narrative is that the district is a crisis-ridden albatross. There are questions of graduation rates, and how teachers have been unable to seal the crevasses between gifted and special ed, poor and affluent, black and white.

Then there's the billboard that looks down on the district's Broadway Avenue headquarters. The sign, paid for by the conservative group Better Ed, draws a portrait of a bloated failure factory:

"Minneapolis spends $21,000 per student. Barely half graduate. Not cool."

This year, Sen. David Hann (R-Eden Prairie) even introduced a bill to break the district into six separate entities as a way to combat "systemic failure."

But for many parents, kids, and teachers who sweat it out every day, there's surprising talk of success.

A middle school rises

Sanford special ed teacher Kris Thornwall works with kids who function below their age and grade level. They're known as DCD kids, short for those with developmental and cognitive delays.

The school mixes these kids with mainstream students, who have come to see them in a new way. "I am seeing birthday invites," Thornwall says with pride, "and regular ed kids speaking to my kids at lunch and in the hallways." The school even started a basketball team that includes special ed kids.

Meanwhile, drama teacher John Marks has a new grading policy. Before students can earn an A or B, they have to show that they have helped others, including special ed students.

Marks is also starting a quiet revolution by teaching meditation and the art of community building. A smattering of eighth graders — who unabashedly call themselves the "cool kids" — say that meditation and befriending the "usually ignored" kids has changed their lives.

Jessica Anderson, who bears the long, spandexed legs of an athlete, played Lucy in a recent play, opposite a boy with Down Syndrome's Charlie Brown. "Special ed kids are so cool," she says with a note of wonder. "One kid can look at anything and then draw it. That's his genius."

Patrick Henry High School step team

Patrick Henry High School step team

Another self-described cool kid, Brett Hill, bubbled with all he has learned in Marks' class. "We basically call the class our 'inner wisdom' or 'inner genius' class because it helps us focus on what we're good at."

"I used to get suspended a lot, for fighting and talking back to teachers," Hill says. Now he's something of an ambassador, bringing peace to the room where kids wait out suspensions. "We're doing meditation techniques in there, like deep breathing, and there's more calm and less back sass at Sanford."

Social studies teacher Mavis Mantilla has also been given room to breathe.

Mantilla, whose stoic exterior gives away nothing for free, grew up on a reservation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but went to a mostly white public school "off the rez." She calls her education "racist and awful. I remember being called names like 'squaw,' and the teachers allowed it."

Still, Mantilla always wanted to be a teacher. She dedicates extra time to Sanford's Native students. Three years ago, she launched the Sanford Indigenous Film Festival. "We are the only public school in Minnesota to have our own film festival."

It's designed to actively rewrite stereotypes. In 2013, it featured the award-winning documentary Reel Injun, which picks apart Hollywood's portrayal of "Injuns."

Last year, she featured Dakota 38, the story of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, when 38 Indians were hanged and thousands were kept interned at Fort Snelling, where they died of starvation or were forced into exile. The movie highlights the post-traumatic stress and high suicide rates rampant in Native communities.

David Sylvestre’s robotics team is among the best in the world

David Sylvestre’s robotics team is among the best in the world

Mantilla calls herself a "radical teacher." Students, she believes, should interpret history their own way. "Worksheets, test scores — these are not our focus," she says.

In one mock government exercise, they wrote their own bills to help poor people. In another, kids created posters to protest the death of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by police on Staten Island.

"Their artwork was just brilliant," Mantilla says with pride.

The drum corps of criticism

These glimmers of success probably won't mean much to Devin Foley. He's the president of Better Ed, the Bloomington group that's notorious for throwing gas on the smoldering fire that is the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Foley operates under the umbrella of Intellectual Takeout, a nonprofit started by former Minnesota Republican Party finance chair Dwight Tostenson and funded by unnamed contributors.

Better Ed peddles a grab bag of free-market ideas, such as school vouchers and the "expansion of private and charter schools," which have yet to prove much better than public education. When asked if he'd ever been in a Minneapolis school, Foley says yes, but won't name one.

Students from North High School

Students from North High School

At the National Summit on Education Reform last year, Foley gave a presentation on his "educational marketing organization," showing how other groups could follow Better Ed by speaking directly to the public.

The goal is to win the PR battle, not dabble in the heady think-tank stuff that only influences legislators. As Foley's presentation makes clear, a little controversy — "creatively spread awareness" — can go a long way.

Foley insists the $21,000 he claims Minneapolis spends per kid is a game changer. He particularly zeroes in on the graduation rates and test scores of African-American students, a sore spot for the district.

In 2013, the group was assailed for sending out a racially charged postcard that featured the barrel of a gun and a claim that "high school dropouts commit 75 percent of all crime" and "Minneapolis Public Schools only graduate 50 percent of their students."

Stats like these undoubtedly shape the public's impression. So it was no surprise when Senator Hann's proposal to break the district into six separate entities gained traction in local media, stirring another storm of bad press.

Some of that press is deserved, brought in part by the pressures of school choice. The district serves around 36,000 students, but nearly 17,000 Minneapolis kids do not attend city schools.

Many have fled to the 100-plus charter schools that have sprouted in and around the city. They include Yinghua Academy, a Chinese immersion school in Northeast, and Ubah Medical Academy, a health-care focused high school in Hopkins.

Parent Kimberly Caprini (left) got the district to pledge $25 million to Patrick Henry. Kimberly's daughters are on the right.

Parent Kimberly Caprini (left) got the district to pledge $25 million to Patrick Henry. Kimberly's daughters are on the right.

Yet charters are only one source of the exodus. Kids are also leaving for gifted programs in Bloomington, or high schools in St. Anthony and Robbinsdale, thanks to open enrollment laws.

This has left Minneapolis' public schools with increased segregation — both economically and racially — that is impossible to overlook. The district now faces staggering differences in attendance and graduation rates between students of color and whiter, wealthier kids.

It also means Minneapolis is often left to educate the most difficult students.

The poor part of town gets inventive

Yet many schools are challenging this narrative of failure.

Southwest High School is a perennial success story, with 87 percent of its kids destined for college.

Public presumption is that such triumph is spurred by its neighborhood, one of Minneapolis' wealthiest and whitest. But nearly 50 percent of Southwest's students are not white, and close to 40 percent meet federal poverty guidelines.

A few of miles down 50th Street sits Washburn High School, perched on a dazzling spread of green on the edge of the Tangletown neighborhood.

As recently as the mid-2000s, families living under Washburn's nose wouldn't send their kids there. But last year, 78 percent of its students graduated on time — a 22 percent jump from 2010.

If the place is a failure, someone forgot to tell the families gathered inside the gym for a Multicultural Arts Fair, hosted by the school's Latino club. On one slice of the floor boys of all sizes, colors, and shapes play soccer. On the other side, girls sell Pakistani bangles to raise money for Spanish language books and trips abroad. Free food — Challah bread and Somali-style samosas, filled with meat and onions — sends a worldly aroma over the crowd.

Across town, Patrick Henry High School rests at the northern edge of Minneapolis.

Kimberly Caprini has a sophomore at Henry. On an April evening, she and others convene on the school's courtyard for a first-ever party for parents.

Caprini takes the microphone to share her vision for parent involvement. By high school, she tells the crowd, kids are more independent, and parents are more inclined to back off and stop volunteering. "But we're so needed."

She reminds them that "the district works for us." She means it literally.

Principal Latanya Daniels praises Caprini for "knocking down the doors of district leadership." The mom arranged a tour of the school for district officials. Afterward, they pledged to pour $25 million into the school next year, adding air conditioning and other improvements.

Henry's graduation rates are also on the rise. Last year, 85 percent of its students graduated on time, up 15 percent from 2010. Yet improvement remains uneven.

While nearly all of Henry's Asian, Hispanic, and white students graduate on time, black kids have seen less dramatic growth. Last year, just over two-thirds graduated on time, up from 59 percent in 2010.

Part of the struggle has to do with poverty. Henry sits in one of Minneapolis' poorest neighborhoods. Ninety percent of its students come from impoverished homes.

That makes it hard for students to "find their path," as the school's logo urges. But Henry is trying. Take Quinton Bonds.

He's Henry's family liaison and keeper of the North Side's most magnetic smile. Bonds also founded the school's Step team, which has roots in African culture and collegiate Greek life. The team uses stomping and clapping in their whole-body dance routines, telling stories along the way.

Bonds beams with pride while describing how Henry just won the Midwest Step Team competition for the third year in a row. His calling is to turn caterpillars into butterflies.

"We now have 20 kids on the team, and I've seen changes in a lot of these kids." He recalls one "very quiet girl" who joined the team and eventually "emerged into an outgoing, confident kid who is going to college."

Kids also come alive through the school's robotics team, run by engineering teacher David Sylvestre.

He once worked in video game design for Disney and Viacom, but left after realizing he couldn't spend the rest of his days in a cubicle.

When he got to Henry, he didn't know anything about robotics. Six years later, he refers to the program as "scouting on steroids." Each year, kids on teams throughout the world are given a new challenge: They must design and build a robot in six weeks using specific parameters.

One year, the robots had to be able to throw frisbees into a goal; another year, they had to stack recycling bins. "These are very difficult challenges, to be done in a short amount of time," Sylvestre says.

"We have 28 kids on our team, in grades 9-12, and it reflects Henry overall. Half the team is female, we have 12 languages spoken on the team. And, like Henry, 90 percent of these kids qualify for free and reduced lunch. Often they are the first in their families to think about going to college, or even graduating from high school."

Henry's team is one of the top five in the world. Not bad, considering it has some 6,000 competitors.

"These kids go to an inner-city school, and they are delivering," says Sylvestre.

The team is supported by companies like Boston Scientific and Medtronic, which provide mentoring, money, and material support.

Boston Scientific is helping to put a fabrication lab in the school. It will feature 3D printers and vinyl cutters so students can get hands-on training for so-called "middle skills" jobs that do not require a college degree, but pay in the $40,000-$60,000 range.

Sylvestre frames it this way: "Boston Scientific has realized the importance of having individuals who can work with materials, to invent and to fabricate things."

Circumventing poverty

The Minneapolis school district educates some of the state's neediest kids. Almost 18 percent qualify for special ed, while nearby suburban districts like Edina serve half that number. As charter schools suck kids away, the city schools must educate the most demanding students.

Example: 22 percent of the kids at Bethune Elementary in north Minneapolis qualify for special ed services. Just around the corner is Harvest Prep charter school, where only 6 percent are classified as special ed.

Therein lies a problem.

School board member Rebecca Gagnon says it comes down to money. For over 40 years now, federal and state mandates have required public schools to serve all kids, including those with significant behavior or health issues. But neither the feds nor the state provide enough money to cover these services.

"For every kid in the district, $1,400 has to come out of their per-pupil funding dollars from the state to cover special ed," Gagnon says.

There are also over 90 native languages represented in the Minneapolis schools, and getting those kids proficient in English is not cheap. According to Gagnon, $240 per kid must be yanked from the district's general fund dollars just to provide language services.

Then there's the poverty. Sixty-four percent are considered low-income. Recent immigrants or refugees alone make up 24 percent. And close to 10 percent are either homeless or highly mobile.

So it seems only fitting that some South High teachers would launch a program called "social justice math."

On a scruffy patch of grass, South squats like a prison. The school has been around since the early days of Minneapolis, but a 1960s redo turned it into an urban fortress. Inside, a windowless maze of hallways carves up the building, shuttling 1,750 students to class.

Sensing boredom and simmering rebellion in her students, math teacher Morgan Fierst decided to go on a quest to "figure out how to teach." Along the way, Fierst — whose partially shaved head and uniform of jeans and Chuck Taylors could easily cast her as a student — won a Human Rights Center grant, which gave her a pot of money that she wasn't sure how to use.

To help her figure it out, she asked her students. They settled on exploring everybody's central question: "When will we use math in real life?"

The kids then chose issues they cared about and applied math to them. The first was Minneapolis' foreclosure crisis, posing the question: "How does access to fair and equitable lending practices impact my community?"

The answers were stunning. They found the home ownership rate for Minnesotans of color was "less than 40 percent," while whites had a 75 percent rate.

Math teacher Stephanie Woldum also decided to revolutionize her work by helping students learn "how to read the world through mathematics." Some of them explored the racial wealth gap, finding evidence of a $100,000 net worth gap between white and black families nationwide. They then laid out a plan for erasing the divide through their own actions, such as tutoring other kids.

The resurrection of North High

Any story about the Minneapolis schools must include North High, the city's oldest. It opened in 1888. But five years ago, the district threatened to close the school, citing dwindling enrollment and poor academic performance. The North Side fought back, and is still fighting today.

North is small, with just 320 kids in a building that once held over 1,000. It was drained of students when feeder elementary schools closed and charter and suburban schools began siphoning students away.

Today, the school is on an upward march. In 2016, it will add a science and technology program. Eventually, the plan is for three separate "academies" with 1,200 students.

Walking into the beige, industrial building — thrown up in the 1970s, when the era of architecturally inspired schools had clearly subsided — it's easy to feel the emptiness brought by the loss of so many kids. Wide hallways are still and silent.

But where others see proof of impending death, parent Jolene Hopkins sees opportunity. With three kids at North, Hopkins helped start a new parent group.

Though guarded at first, she has a distinctive, gravelly voice that comes alive when speaking about North. She's aggravated by the cloud of stereotypes that continues to dog the school.

"Academically, the kids are doing so much," says Hopkins, "but you don't hear about it. You only hear about sports.... Twelve of our students went to the state History Day competition this year." That's more than any other Minneapolis school.

One, Faith Barron, won a spot in the national History Day competition in Washington, D.C., this summer. Her topic? The 1969 takeover of Morrill Hall at the University of Minnesota, led by African-American students who felt excluded and invisible at the U.

"One third of our kids are on the honor roll," Hopkins adds. "That's unheard of. It's crazy good."

Her oldest girl, a sophomore, was the first to enroll at North. "She was at a middle school in St. Paul, a charter school, and she was struggling," Hopkins says. "A month in the door at North, and she was college bound."

The difference: "The teachers teach until you get it. That's their theory."

If this is bad...

On a Friday night in May, south Minneapolis' Roosevelt High was hopping as the school hosted its second art crawl of the year.

A bounty of neighborhood groups and students strolled the halls and stood behind booths, hawking tacos, tamales, hot dogs, and burgers. A jazz combo wailed away while kids from the Heritage Spanish program lingered near the "Roosevelt Identity Board."

On it were pictures of students and staff holding photos representing who they are. "I am Honduran," read one. "I am Mexican, Native, Full of Pride," said another. One boy held a sign saying, "I am a future Latino college graduate."

The school seemed to be swirling with action. Students from nearby Folwell Arts Magnet school were hosting a paint party, giving people the chance to make their mark on a new mural for the neighborhood. Around a bend, a young girl stood on a makeshift stage rapping before an enthusiastic crowd.

At this moment, it's easy to understand why the Minneapolis Public Schools are not as bad as you think.