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Tori Brown remembers the first time she dreamed about her high school graduation.
At six years old, she liked to ride her bike up a hill to a neighbor’s house. She sat on the curb with her diary and looked up to the sky, reflecting on how no one in her family had graduated from high school.
“I want to wear the gown, I want the cap, I want tassels, all that,” she recalled. “I sat there and I made a promise to myself: I would never forget.”
Now 19 and a senior at Edison High School, in northeast Minneapolis, Brown hopes to graduate this year. But her responsibilities outside of school have made it challenging to complete her credits: taking care of her younger siblings and working in a nursing home during the pandemic. On top of that, it’s been difficult to finish high school mostly online.
“My junior year, I was on my p’s and q’s,” she said. “I did not expect COVID to come out of nowhere and hit me so hard like a boulder.”
Brown signed up for summer school to make up credits in chemistry and health. If she completes those courses, she’ll be on track to receive her diploma at the end of the summer. But unless the district’s superintendent, Ed Graff, changes the rules, she won’t be able to walk in the June graduation ceremony with the rest of her class.
Her parents didn’t graduate from high school; her older siblings never walked across a stage, either. People have told her she would get pregnant young, and drop out. “I’ve had adults kill my dreams,” she said.
But Brown wants to make her own destiny. She thinks about continuing her passion for healthcare as a certified nursing assistant, or perhaps running a hair salon or lash business. Sometimes she talks about becoming a counselor or a schoolteacher. Ultimately, she wants a job where she can make people feel like they matter.
Not participating in graduation would feel like confirming the low expectations she’s fought against her whole life, she said.
“If I can’t graduate on time, dang,” she said. “What else can I do?”
The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the union representing teachers and counselors, is pressing for seniors like Brown to walk in their graduation ceremonies this spring.
Typically, Minneapolis seniors can join their class if they’re behind by up to 0.75 credits, a number determined by what a student could successfully recover in summer school. (That’s the equivalent of three one-quarter classes; one year’s history class, for example, is one full credit.) Students who haven’t completed all their credits don’t receive their diploma until they make up their coursework, even if they participate in the ceremony.
But this year, with more students behind and more options available to make up credits during summer school, the union argues the graduation ceremony should be opened up to students who are up to 2.25 credits behind. That’s the equivalent of, say, a full year’s English class and math class, plus a quarter of physical education. Students would just need to make up their credits by the end of summer.
District leaders, though, have expressed concern that it will be difficult for students to finish all those credits during the summer months.
Brown is one of 15 Edison seniors—including 13 students of color, and seven English language learners—who would be able to walk the stage under the union proposal. Under the existing policy, they’ll have to sit out graduation.
“It might not seem a lot, but it is a lot. I’m really close to every senior in my class,” Brown said. “We’ve worked so hard to get here, it’s so sad.”
It’s especially difficult considering her class won’t have a prom or senior brunch, she said. Even graduation will have limited attendance due to COVID restrictions.
‘I personally would have failed my classes’
At a May 11 press conference outside Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters, ahead of a school board meeting, teachers and counselors with the union argued that students in Brown’s situation should be able to participate in graduation.
One of the teachers pushing for the change was Lauren Wheeler, a 2021 Minnesota Teacher of the Year finalist, who teaches health and physical education at Edison. She’s also completing doctorate coursework at the University of Pittsburgh. Wheeler said she’d needed extra time to complete her own classes between the stress of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent unrest.
“I personally would have failed my classes, to be honest with you,” she said. “If it wasn’t for my professors and advisors working out and showing compassion for me to get an incomplete, and finally finish up this summer, I would not be graduating.”
Marcia Howard, an English teacher at Roosevelt High School who has spent the past year volunteering at George Floyd Square, recalled that she’d needed to make up credits in summer school after her high school graduation, too.
“My senior year was a country song,” Howard said. Her mother suffered a devastating car accident; a car hit her dog; and her house burned down. She fell behind in English, never finishing Beowulf, she said. But despite failing her English class, her mother argued that she should be able to walk in graduation.
“They let me walk, and I heard ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ and although everyone else had a diploma with their name on it, I got a rolled up piece of paper,” Howard said. “Honey, when you see the picture, you don’t know. I waved it high because I knew I’d be able to get it in summer school.”
Howard received her diploma that summer after finishing her English credit. Now, she teaches the same International Baccalaureate class she once failed.
“And I teach the hell out of Beowulf,” she concluded.
’Those responsibilities don’t necessarily end over the summer’
In a May 11 school board meeting, many board members expressed sympathy for students short on their credit requirements, and some argued they should be able to walk. But district leaders seemed hesitant to change the ceremony requirements.
Superintendent Ed Graff noted that it’s already difficult for graduating students who are missing credits to make them up in summer school. Under the existing rules, a third to a half of students with missing credits who walk in graduation fail to finish their coursework during summer school, Graff said.
Board chair Kim Ellison said that in conversations with urban school district leaders across the country, she hadn’t found any that allow students to participate in graduation ceremonies if they plan to make up credits over the summer.
But some board members argued it was more important to let students celebrate with their class—even if they don’t complete their credits.
“My heart hurts for these students who are not going to be able to walk with their teachers and their classmates and their principals,” said board member Kimberly Caprini. Even if some students failed to complete their credits over the summer, she said, they would do so when they were ready. “We are in a position where we can make a choice to either give someone an opportunity to live through something that none of us have ever been through with some joy. Or we can just take it away.”
Mary Ghebremeskal, a junior at South High School and the student representative to the school board, said that many students had fallen behind due to work and childcare responsibilities.
“Those responsibilities don’t necessarily end over the summer,” Ghebremeskal said. “So for many of those students even being able to attend summer school and achieve those credits isn’t very much a possibility right now.”
Ultimately, the decision will be up to Graff. Wrapping up the discussion, Ellison suggested school staff find additional ways to celebrate students, especially seniors.
Tori Brown knows it will be difficult to sit at a desk through June and July as her peers enjoy the summer and plan for college. Still, she objects to the idea that students won’t be able to complete their credits. She’s signed up for every credit recovery opportunity she can.
“I just know that not all of us are sitting here lollygagging,” she said. “We are really pressing for this.”
At home, she helps motivate her younger siblings to stay focused on school and complete their assignments. And she does the same at school. She’d always hoped to be a role model for underclassmen, imagining herself as “that loud obnoxious senior.” And although her final year of high school isn’t anything like what she imagined, she’s still a presence on campus.
Recently, she spotted a younger student in the hallway having trouble with an assignment. Brown advised her to talk it through with the teacher—and told the student to FaceTime her if she still had trouble. They could do the assignment together! The student smiled.
“It made me feel good about myself, to make that little change in other people’s lives,” she said.
Now, she hopes adults will show that same confidence in her.