In a truly horrible moment in Minneapolis’ history 10 years ago, I could feel my heart breaking as I sat in a classroom at Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis.
A few days earlier, not too far from the school, a man having dinner in the Penn Best Steak House was shot at point-blank range. The community was shocked by the senselessly blatant brutality of the murder.
My friend John Strand, who was teaching English at Henry at the time, told me the murder had deeply shaken the students in the English classes he was teaching at Henry. He invited me to spend a couple hours in his classroom to hear the students, and that’s when my heart started to break. The kids had a deep resignation that they were powerless to stop the violence in their neighborhoods and, to a degree, their school community. I asked, “How many of you know someone who has been shot?” Hands went up around the room. “How many of you know how to get a gun?” Most hands went up. “How many of you have a friend who has a gun?” I asked. There was an uncomfortable laugh because the sad answer was, pretty much everyone knew a friend who has a gun.
I tried to tell the kids there were ways to win back their neighborhood. They were polite, probably because I was Mayor at the time, but it was very clear when I left that I hadn’t given them any reason to be hopeful.
I doubt I’ll ever forget that day and I certainly remembered it a couple of weeks ago when, through an ironic set of circumstances, I ended up back in that exact classroom at Henry. This time the situation was dramatically different. The class was part of advisory time when students were being led through the online process of filling out financial aid forms.
I was in that room as part of a site-visit with Target and Greater Twin Cities United Way to see how Henry’s staff is spending the $100,000 they were awarded as part of the Spotlight Initiative grants. The funds were part of $1 million in grants Target and United Way announced at Generation Next’s annual meeting in 2014 to help expand promising efforts to help close the achievement gap.
Henry is using the money on an innovative strategy that took 5 minutes from each classroom period through the day to create space in the schedule for advisory time – two days a week. Teachers and counseling staff at Henry are using this new period to help students build the know-how and social-emotional skills that perceptive teachers and staff believe are critical to helping Henry students graduate and thrive. Along with getting help on college aid and application forms, we saw volunteers from Best Prep helping kids build a personal budget and, in the process, get a new appreciation for math. Students can also use this time to get help on course work, so they can stay on track. The most interesting session was a small group session specially designed by the teachers and counselors to help kids who have not yet developed connections in the school community build authentic, supportive relationships with their classmates. (If you don’t think this is important, pay attention next time you read about youth violence because a shockingly high percentage of incidents are inflicted by loners who have lost their connection to the rest of the community.)
Knowing how far some of our kids have to go to meet their academic needs, I would normally question taking time away from pure classroom instruction but I came away from Henry a true believer. Having been in many classrooms over the years and, sadly, seeing how high school students aren’t always at peak attention, it was remarkable how engaged so many of the kids were in these sessions.
I have been to Henry High many times over the years. I have seen bright moments – an honors award ceremony filled with high achieving seniors, a technology fair where Geek Squad volunteers helped transfixed students learn to repair computers. I met great kids when I spoke at graduation one year, and when I did forums with every 9th grade class for seven years. There have always been good work and good programs at Henry. But I have never felt better about the school than now. Not even close. And here is the great news: This inner city school with high poverty, high mobility and so many other challenges, has some of the highest graduation rates in the state. Let that sink in for a minute.
During my visit I started a conversation with a couple teachers in the hall. “I’ve been here a lot but it’s never seemed to be doing as good as right now,” I said. “What’s going on?” “There is group of adults in this building who are working together,” said one, “and we are just going to make it work for these kids.” Another said: “If something doesn’t work we will try it again and if that doesn’t work we will try one more time. We are just not going to stop until we get it right.”
As I walked out the door of the school that day I had a lump in my throat. That has happened to me before, especially after that deeply sad day in John Strand’s classroom all those years ago. Only this time I was getting choked up out of sheer and complete joy that a dedicated staff, against great odds, facing the challenges that have worn down so many, that have forced others to simply give up, has risen to exceptional heights. We don’t say “thank you” enough to the teachers and school leaders who do this work in so many places every day so I want to make sure I say it now to those who are literally changing lives for kids who deeply deserve adults who care.
Henry is not perfect. There will be days when something bad happens. There will be kids who slip through the cracks. We shouldn’t accept it but even an optimist like me knows it will happen. But the overwhelming sense I have is that this time Henry’s momentum is unstoppable.
During that visit a couple weeks ago, when students in one of the classes heard that I was involved in the STEP-UP summer job program, a sophomore marched confidently up to me and told me he was going for his STEP-UP interview that day. He began telling me what he was going to do when he gets older. He loves music but being a musician is his backup plan, because he really wants to be a pediatrician. He told me his father died when he was young; I told him mine did too, and we had a great conversation about how tough odds shouldn’t stop you from doing great things. I gave him my phone number to tell me how it goes and a couple days later he texted me that his interview went great. Then, last week, another report that the second interview “was even better than the first.” Reading it, I smiled, knowing this charismatic kid who won’t let odds stop him, is on his way.
And I can say, with tremendous gratitude to those who have been part of this school’s progress, so is Henry.