Soon there will be no public schools in North Minneapolis. What is a public school? If you are reading this, it’s mostly likely the school you attended: diverse, big, brick, sport teams, and public, meaning any youth could attend. West of the river, south of Lowry and north of Bryn Mawr, NorthStar, Willard, Jordan, Harrison, Lincoln, Franklin and W. Harry Davis have closed as traditional public schools.
North High’s student enrollment has fallen to 265 this fall from nearly 1,500 students more than a decade ago. Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels said it should be burned down. Current school board members seemingly wish to rent it out piecemeal to any program not befitting the new Broadway-bound 807 headquarters. Bethune has dwindling enrollment and its students have poor test scores. By fall 2011, it could become a self-governed French immersion school, thus, a thinly veiled charter school alongside Hmong Academy, a block away. These are not public schools. The last public school in North Minneapolis could be Hall International or Nellie Stone Johnson.
For once, we cannot blame Bush-era privatization of schools (that has sped up under President Obama), or Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s balancing the state budget on schools’ cash flow, nor can we blame our neighbors who have the lowest voter turnout in the Twin Cities, rap music, easy-as-pie drugs, or racism. The usual monsters are busy and whimpering at the feet of something bigger and scarier.
We are taking from our commonwealth, ripping a vein richer than any gold found in rock, any river snaking the length of our country. We take from our shared history and democracy and consequently we rush headlong into an unshared, unequal future.
There used to be an idea ripe in this country before privatization and specialization, that there were public goods, goods that could not be owned (your money and your background didn’t matter) such as parks and rivers and schools. By definition you could not be refused. By definition everyone is welcomed but no one person more than the next. And this idea itself was what made it public, good, and best for us.
My parents grew up in rural Mississippi before Brown [the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that outlawed school segregation], had they wanted to attend school with white children they could not have. There are two lessons to Brown that we are lax in retelling. One is that Brown didn’t just let black children attend white schools, but it overthrew a then 60-year-old law that declared it was possible to be "separate and equal."
The second lesson is that Brown was somehow special. It was not. Brown was just the case that was won. However, for 400-plus years, before the first law ever passed in this country, black, and white and Indian have fought the good fight to end brutal racism. We cannot go back to separate and private little kingdoms.
Much as the country itself, public school education has been a great experiment. A good public high school education like that which North High provides should be seen as the closest we get to a shared story in this country. This shared experience is our only "rites of citizenship" before we pass into our nearly-gated neighborhoods, private jobs, and private clubs, and what Malcolm X called the most segregated hour in the week, private Sunday morning services.
It is true that a great public school, K-12, would double the values of homes in North Minneapolis, and its graduates would be sought after by every college or employer. So we gripe that Minneapolis schools are not providing this, but our largest public school, the University of Minnesota, has the worst outcomes for black students; 38 percent in five years, and they get to pick who attends. I don’t have the all the answers for what makes a school great; however, there is something more valuable and greater than the math test scores. And that value has everything to do with the "public" in public education.
We need to save North High School. We need to show support by sending our children there, by attending parent conferences, by supporting sports and after-school activities, by attending school board meetings, and in doing so we will support not only our children’s education in the classroom but also our common history—so hard won—and our shared future needed to win.
We need to do this now, before there is only one last public school in North Minneapolis.
When that last bell rings for classes dismissed and the principal goes to turn out the lights on our city’s last public institution, and all that remains is the glare of Northside neighbors who lost the step in history to fear and to someone’s private idea of what makes a school great, I want you to remember: As goes North Community High School, as goes public education in Minneapolis, as goes our democracy. They come for the children. Do not give them up.