Sunday, October 17, 2010

Nick Coleman: North High isn't dying a natural death

The school, a community anchor, ought to be rescued, not abandoned.
By NICK COLEMAN, Star Tribune
Last update: October 16, 2010 - 5:55 PM

Last week's fireworks over the proposal to kill North High School -- a community asset that has helped anchor the North Side of Minneapolis for more than a century -- didn't come out of nowhere. It was the culmination of a sustained attack.

Burn North High School down, City Council Member Don Samuels, a darling of conservative school critics, thundered in 2007. It wasn't an idle remark. It was a calculated step in an ongoing effort to carve up public education and privatize it into a Balkanized set of disconnected charter schools where students are self-selected, the administrations are suspect, performance is subpar and anything goes, while resources decline for a shrinking public-school system struggling with dwindling enrollments and persistent educational gaps. "Burn it down," could be their motto. Samuels' incendiary threat, three and a half years later, is now nearly realized.

In 2007, North High had more than 1,000 students, was led by a dynamic principal and had a fighting chance of survival. But the assault continued, with the closing of elementary and middle schools that fed it and with the drawing of school boundaries that cut it off from its neighborhood. If Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson succeeds in shutting the school, she will not have put an ailing institution out of its misery. She will have finished a slow-rolling homicide in process for years.

Somebody ought to call a halt. And the insulting and condescending putdowns of community voices speaking for the importance of North High should end. The "experts" who support closing North seemed surprised when angry community members protested. But residents know what's at stake, and even the makers of "Waiting for 'Superman'" -- the provocative broadside against failing schools -- agree. Failing neighborhoods don't cause failing schools, the new film argues. It's the other way around: "Failing neighborhoods might be blamed on failing schools."

The movie by Davis Guggenheim, who made "An Inconvenient Truth" and sends his children to private schools, was meant to assuage Guggenheim's liberal guilt. Still, it takes a valuable look at failing schools similar to North, points (too much) blame at teachers unions and school bureaucracies, and champions a handful of innovative charter schools (while acknowledging that only a small percentage excel). But "Waiting for 'Superman'" does not turn up any superheroes. The "star" of the film is Geoffrey Canada, a charismatic black educator whose Harlem Children's Zone promises to follow kids from the cradle through college. Canada's charisma has excited educators, has won support from President Obama and Wall Street, has gained millions in private donations and has run smack into the same troubles facing North High.

Performance scores at Canada's much-touted schools, where the school day and school year are extended and spending per pupil is far higher than in most public schools, have fallen recently, with English scores at one sinking below the New York City average. Perhaps there are no magic solutions.

Other leaders spotlighted in the film include Howard Fuller, former Milwaukee schools superintendent and father of the school voucher movement, who has admitted that "choice" schools have not produced the improvements he hoped for, and Michelle Rhee, the teacher-firing, school-closing, Time magazine-cover-posing superintendent of Washington, D.C., schools who resigned last week.

There ain't no Superman, Jimmy. Rather than carving up the schools and divvying up their funding, maybe they need more collaboration, more support and more commitment from an engaged community. Maybe our North Highs need to be rescued, not abandoned.
It might sound good to bureaucrats, politicians and public-school haters to close a struggling school. But the city, its officials and residents have a duty not to close North but to fix it, no matter how hard and how long the task.

Walking away from an anchor institution in a neighborhood all too familiar with abandonment is a dereliction of duty. What is the plan to replace it? Shipping minority kids to suburban schools? As "Waiting for 'Superman'" points out, suburban schools have nicer gyms but perform almost as poorly as urban ones. How about throwing families on a confusing patchwork of charter schools, the majority of which are also failing to produce students ready for college, in the hope they get lucky? Cruel and capricious may be the future, but it's no way to run schools.

"Waiting for 'Superman'" ends with a heartbreaking sequence in which children hoping for great schools sit through lotteries that are stacked against them, with 20-to-one odds in some cases, praying that they get a ticket to the school of their dreams. If they don't, they may become losers in a system where broken North Highs aren't fixed. They are set up for failure and shut down.

Look, up in the sky. It's a bird, it's a plane ... it's ... only a plane. Now get back to work.

Nick Coleman is at

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