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On a recent Thursday morning at Brooklyn Center Middle School, sixth-grade detectives hunted for clues. On the floor, a gray tape outline formed the shape of a body. Red string, wrapped around four plastic blue chairs, cordoned off the imaginary body from the rest of the classroom. 

Each of the sixth-graders had been assigned a character in this investigation. One was the murderer, but none of them knew who—not even the killer. Students whispered to their classmates and exchanged information to solve the mystery.

The killer must be the character with a pet spider, said 12-year-old Welma Williams. After all, poison had been involved in the murder; perhaps the murder weapon was spider venom.

Eleven-year-old Sama Barakat came to a different conclusion. She led her assistant principal, Joshua Fuchs, and a Sahan Journal reporter to the hallway to share her findings, beyond the earshot of her classmates. “The clues point to—surprise surprise—me,” she said.

Sama listed her evidence: The murderer was an only child; so was her character. She’d found a clue that the murderer did not, in fact, own a pet spider. Her character had a pet rabbit. The murderer drove a fancy car. “I’m an actor and a professional singer,” Sama reasoned. “I must drive a fancy car.”

Based on the CSI clues she had collected, 11-year-old Sama Barakat concluded that she was the killer. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The CSI class is part of a new enrichment program the school implemented last year. When Brooklyn Center Middle and High School returned to full-time in-person learning in the fall of 2021, school leaders knew they would need to make some changes. Attendance had been low in the virtual and hybrid learning models. Students seemed less engaged with school. And social skills had atrophied. 

Those problems reflected a national trend: Chronic student absenteeism, defined as missing more than 10 percent of the school year, soared throughout the pandemic. In the 2020–2021 school year, 21 percent of Minnesota students were chronically absent, up from 15 percent before the pandemic. In 2021-2022, schools nationwide reported slight increases in chronic student absences over the previous year. 

Absenteeism numbers are higher among students of color, who make up more than 90 percent of the population of Brooklyn Center Middle and High School.

“We knew we had to focus on engagement, we knew we had to focus on attendance, but attendance alone wasn’t it,” said Josh Fraser, the principal of Brooklyn Center Middle and High School. “We had to figure out why attendance was lower. How could you see yourself back in this space with your identity and your passions?”

“We knew we had to focus on engagement, we knew we had to focus on attendance, but attendance alone wasn’t it. We had to figure out why attendance was lower. How could you see yourself back in this space with your identity and your passions.”

Josh Fraser, principal of brooklyn center middle and high school

School leaders developed an “enrichment block” on Tuesdays and Thursdays for students to participate in an activity of their choosing. Those electives include crime-scene investigation, winter sports, extra math help, and small-business development. Many enrichment offerings—like the CSI class—come from student suggestions. Others come from community partners who want to teach skills beyond traditional academic courses.

Academic departments, too, have adapted their coursework to better accommodate student needs and interests. The social studies department now offers ethnic studies courses, which teach the history of different ethnic groups in the United States and connect past struggles to the present. Ninth-graders can take a hip-hop elective as an English class; juniors and seniors can opt for Indigenous voices class for English. Even the math department has incorporated ethnic studies principles in an effort to make mathematical concepts feel more relevant to student identities.

Ninth-graders can take a hip-hop elective as an English class; juniors and seniors can opt for Indigenous voices class for English. Even the math department has incorporated ethnic studies principles in an effort to make mathematical concepts feel more relevant to student identities.

Fraser believes the enrichment programs—along with improved staffing, declining COVID case counts, and lower stress levels—are improving student engagement and attendance. Last December, the school had categorized 30 percent of students as “habitually truant”: So far that school year, they had missed at least one class period on at least seven days. This December, only 12 percent of students fit that category. And suspensions in December 2022 declined 45 percent from December 2021.

The school is still collecting and analyzing data on its enrichment program and other school changes. But leaders are optimistic that transforming student engagement can lead to better academic performance, too.

The goal, Fraser said, is to “get to passion, that people can feel like I really want to show up to school each day.” When students have something to look forward to, Fraser said, they often perform better in their other classes as well.

‘Our students are whole people’

Part of the secret to Brooklyn Center Community Schools’ ability to innovate, school officials say, is the district’s community school model.

The Brooklyn Center School District is the only district in Minnesota in which every school is a full-service community school. That means schools provide more than educational services to students: They offer health clinics and access to social services. Sometimes the schools pivot quickly as community needs change. 

For example, in April 2021, civil unrest erupted in Brooklyn Center after a police officer killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright. When grocery stores closed their doors, Brooklyn Center High School opened a makeshift food shelf.

Brooklyn Center Community Schools site coordinator Tashawna Williams and Julie Gilasevitch, a health resource center coordinator, sort food at a supply drive at Brooklyn Center High School in April 2021, following the police killing of Daunte Wright. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

“It is a holistic model, recognizing that our students are whole people,” said Angel Smaller, the community-school site coordinator for the middle and high school. The enrichment program, he said, “fits really well into that holistic model, being responsive to what folks are needing and expressing that they want.”

Part of Smaller’s job is to cultivate relationships with partner organizations outside the school. Some of those community partners teach enrichment classes. One of those partners is Skntones, a local brand and creative agency whose clients include Jay-Z’s entertainment company Roc Nation. 

The Skntones enrichment class teaches high school students the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. Students learn the basics of revenue and profit, and design their own school T-shirts. On the day Sahan Journal visited, students were constructing a cotton cloud to provide the scenic backdrop for a live production event.

In the Skntones enrichment course, students constructed a cloud as part of the backdrop for a live production event. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“It’s a fun class,” said 16-year-old Demari Neal. “We do things we enjoy. Everybody works together, builds a bond.”

Demari said he hopes to pursue a career in sports: He plays basketball and football. But he’s interested in learning about clothing design as a backup career plan. He’s already started a clothing website with his friends, using web design skills he learned in the Skntones course.

“If I didn’t take this class, I wouldn’t have known anything about any of that,” he said.

Demari Neal, right, laughs with Stephon Atuti of Skntones, one of his enrichment class’s instructors. Demari has already used the skills he learned in the Skntones class to create a clothing website. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Students ask for enrichment activities–not a pandemic

The seeds for the enrichment programs were sown before the pandemic shut down school buildings. Through an annual survey process, students had already provided feedback that they wanted more elective offerings. That can be a challenge for a small school, Fraser, the principal, said. The middle school and high school share a building and together serve about 900 students.

“Students were describing to us that they wanted to be more connected to our school, and to be able to persist through some of those classes they struggle with, and know that they’re actually getting experiences with their passions,” Fraser said. “That’s the long-term goal.”

Over the year and a half that school buildings were not operating at full capacity, school officials had the opportunity to map out what a change could look like. They rearranged the school day, borrowing minutes from passing time and structuring enrichment around Tuesday and Thursday lunch. That way, students could still get all their required instructional time for other subjects. 

The program hit some hiccups its first semester, Fraser said. “Year one, it actually was very difficult,” he said. After a year and a half of pandemic learning, students were back full-time in person, and many had forgotten their social skills. Scheduling enrichment around lunch made the class feel less structured. And only about half the students were in a class they had chosen; others ended up in classes that felt more like obligations.

But instead of giving up, the school doubled down on enrichment. Students started proposing ideas for the kinds of enrichment classes they wanted to take—like CSI, an idea that came from students with an interest in forensics. Now, about 85 percent of students are in a class they want to be in, Fraser said—and the school hopes to increase that number.

Sixth-graders learn origami in an enrichment class at Brooklyn Center Middle School. They’ve also built birdhouses and roller coasters; some of their building kits were donated by the Minnesota Trades Academy. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Creating an environment where students can learn outside of traditional academic courses helps them build confidence, said Smaller, the community-school site coordinator.

“It’s huge for them just recognizing that, even if I fail all my classes, I can come here and learn something and realize I have a skill,” he said.

‘You start to get kids who run to math class’

Sizi Goyah keeps plenty of drones around his math classroom. The $20 drones originally came from an enrichment program. Students flew the drones over the school; they used the images they collected to calculate the landmass of the school building and the speed of passing cars. At students’ request, they used the drones to take aerial photos of the football team, like the NFL does.

After seeing the drones’ popularity in enrichment, Goyah integrated them into his math curriculum.

“The students we have in front of us are into these things,” he said. “I teach them these things, how they apply to things I’m teaching on the board, and have their interest. Or I can just continue to teach myself, and they don’t care.”

Goyah, who’s originally from Liberia, has implemented other changes to his math classes to make them more relevant to students. His students learn how to calculate the hypotenuse of a triangle. But they learn that that formula came first from Egypt and China—not a Greek philosopher named Pythagoras, as many textbooks teach it. Goyah says these connections are meaningful to his diverse students—about half are Black, and many are Muslim. When students learn that algebra originated in Islamic schools in the Middle East, Goyah said, “you see Islamic students smiling.”

This approach, called “ethnic mathematics,” came out of departmental conversations about anti-racism in the classroom, following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It’s an example of how academic departments have made an effort to rework lessons since returning to in-person learning.

Sizi Goyah, a math teacher at Brooklyn Center High School, writes an equation on the board of his precalc class. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“Kids now start to see the connections and they start to feel like, I have a mathematical ancestry,” Goyah said. When they recognize themselves in that history and claim a connection, he said, they “work harder to perform.” And building confidence in math helps students believe in their own intelligence—which translates into other courses, he said.

Since classes resumed in person, Goyah has dropped assignment due dates, allowing students to work at their own pace. He’s become increasingly mindful of reading the room, making sure he does not proceed to the next lesson until students have grasped the previous one. And he seeks to make his classes fun and relevant to kids, dropping references to K-pop, Popeye’s Chicken, and the Minnesota State Fair as he reviews inverse trigonometry functions. 

“If you do it just right, kids want to be in your room,” he said. “The attendance issue doesn’t become an issue anymore. You start to get kids who run to math class.”

Junior detectives

Back at CSI enrichment class, Sama Barakat burst into the hallway to provide an update. She had encountered a plot twist. Her teacher had told her that her character, the actor and professional singer, was not the murderer after all. The clues Sama had collected about pets, personality traits, and cars had not been sufficient to identify the killer.

It may not have been a traditional lesson. But Sama, Welma, and their classmates were practicing their critical thinking skills, and learning how much evidence they needed to arrive at a definitive conclusion.

“You’ll have to go back to your class and try to unpack some of that and try to figure it out,” Fuchs, the assistant principal, suggested.

Sama had other ideas. “I’m done with murders for today,” she declared.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...