By Teddy Shibabaw, PEJAM.org
Oct. 15, 2010
MINNEAPOLIS –On Tuesday Oct 12, an overflowing crowd of Northsiders and public education supporters from around the Twin Cities went to the School Board meeting with a strong united message: reject the Superintendent’s proposal to close North High!
On Friday afternoon, District Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson held an all-staff meeting to let them know she was recommending North High be closed down, blaming shrinking enrollment and bad test scores. North High has historically been the main high school serving the largest African American community in Minneapolis, but the District is now effectively looking to replace it with a privately managed charter school. However, studies show charters in Minnesota have failed to improve test scores and are linked to increased segregation and inequality of education.
The Save North High Coalition had called an emergency rally outside of District headquarters before the Board meeting. The rally started at 4:30pm with people chanting slogans, followed by a series of speakers included several alumni, a leading community activist, the senior class president, and two state legislators, with president of the North High Alumni Association Kale Severson as MC. Then the crowd marched inside chanting and packed the Board meeting to overflow capacity. Overall the demonstration brought about 250 out on less than three days’ notice, but its impact was much wider. It was the top evening story on all the local TV news networks (see links below).
Such a display of popular power resulted in a partial victory. Before the board meeting all the official communications had made the closure of North sound like a done deal, with the proposal to be introduced Tuesday and the vote scheduled for November 9th. Superintendent Johnson had even sent parents a clumsy, arrogant letter that made the democratic process look like a sham, with the letter containing language that assumed the decision had already been made before the Board had formally received the recommendation, let alone voted on it.
Here’s a small excerpt from the letter: “This year's ninth-grade students will be the final class to graduate from North. North will no longer be offered as a high school option for current eighth-grade students”.
The meeting opened with a 30-minute public comment section which folks from the rally packed. This was followed by an hour of unrelated business (to bore everyone out of their minds in hopes people would leave), but the room was still over-flowing when the Superintendent read out the proposal to shut North High down. She was interrupted and cat-called multiple times, and signs saying "Keep North Open - Stop the Privatization of Public Education" were held high for her whole speech. Several times the chair threatened to shut the meeting down unless she was allowed to finish.
Each Board member had their say. Three board members defended the Superintendent’s proposal (to cat-calls and interruptions). However, in response to the strong community protest, the other three board members present asked that the vote be put off until after a further process of community meetings and input can happen (to big applause and cheers). It is likely this was no more than a gesture to diffuse anger for the moment, since none of those three board members who spoke in favor of delaying the process pointed to any other course of action than to eventually close the school.
Finally, the main agenda-related public comment section began. Most speakers focused on the importance of the school to the community’s survival and tradition. The issue of this being an attack on the Black community was repeatedly raised. Marcus Owens, president of the Friends of North foundation expressed what the whole crowd must have been feeling: “If you fail us now, there will never be enough healing to overcome the hurt you will cause.”
A lot of very good speakers highlighted the hypocrisy of the Board, pointing out how they set up North High to fail and now want to blame parents and students for fleeing the school. For example, speakers mentioned that the district shut down virtually all the elementary and middle schools that served as feeders for North High. A number of speakers also warned that the attempt to replace North High with a charter school furthers the trend towards gentrification that has been going on for some time.
Kale Severson mentioned that last year the district spent $16,000 busing eighth graders to tour six Minneapolis high schools they could choose to attend the following year. North High was not one of them! This arouses even more suspicion as to how long this plan to close North High has been in place.
Any honest accounting of events has to look at the years of neglect and underfunding, the closure of the feeder schools, the use of standardized tests to punish the school, and finally the approval of two charter schools in Minneapolis (one of which will be on the Northside). One would either have to severely insult the intelligence of the board or conclude that this was part of a conscious plan for privatizing Minneapolis High Schools in line with the national trends that have been pushed by powerful corporate and wealthy interests.
In fact, two speakers - Ty Moore and Brandon Madsen of the Public Education Justice Alliance of MN - sharply highlighted how the threat to close North High and replace it with a charter school is more than just an attack on North Minneapolis. Rather, it is connected to a systematic nationwide trend towards dismantling and privatizing public education, using the privately managed charter schools as the knife’s edge.
The speakers list lasted an hour and a half, but there were still a good 70 people in the room when the meeting ended after 9:00pm.
No one could have left that rally and meeting feeling demoralized. The main question now is how to build the fight-back from here. The Save North High Coalition (including Public Education Justice Alliance of Minnesota (PEJAM), Friends of North High, North High Alumni Association, Committee for North High as well as other groups and individuals), who called the school board rally also heavily advertised an “EMERGENCY MEETING" for Saturday Oct. 16 at Zion Baptist Church (621 Elwood Ave N) for all parents, students, teachers and the wider community of Northsiders and public education supporters in the Twin Cities. By bringing together such a group of people, we can articulate a common analysis of the problem, a common strategy to defeat the plan to close North, and a common vision for a positive community-controlled alternative to the District’s failures.
Look for an article at PEJAM.org soon for more in-depth analysis of the problems that led to this fight to keep North High open, as well as an outline of fight-back strategies that can take this struggle to the finish.
Teddy Shibabaw is an organizer with Public Education Justice Alliance of Minnesota (PEJAM). He is the web coordinator for PEJAM.org and also writes for Justice Newspaper and socialistalternative.org.
Here is the facebook event page, which gives a flavor for the mood, etc: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=123953184326428
Video of School Board Meeting: (does not include 1st 30 min of public comments)
TV media links: