Nuuria Osman, a Minneapolis community education staffer, and Elisabeth Gnakadja, a freshman at North High School, work on a puzzle on Monday afternoon. Minneapolis community education expanded its programming to accommodate North High students during the educator strike. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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On a snowy Monday morning, teenagers trickled into the room behind the sanctuary at Shiloh Temple International Ministries, located across from Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters. Breakfast fixings on fold-out tables —cereal, milk, donuts, pancakes—greeted students. It was the fifth day of the Minneapolis educators strike.

“Make sure you sign in, sweetheart!” called Kelly Jackson, the parent of a North Community High School junior, as a student entered. “Set your stuff down and get some breakfast.”

As Minneapolis schools braced for a teacher strike, community members sprang into action. Parent-teacher associations and local nonprofits organized childcare. School board chair Kim Ellison called pastors who volunteered to open churches for students. Community education coordinators switched their focus to create programming for kids whose classes were canceled.

For North High students, the Parent-Teacher Association organized a drop-in center at Shiloh Temple starting the first day of the strike. By Friday, the strike’s fourth day, Matt Branch, the school’s community education coordinator, had gotten access to the high school building to host an open gym and activities for kids. That program officially launched on Monday.

With about 400 students, North is the smallest of Minneapolis’ traditional high schools. The school community is still grieving the death of star football player Deshaun Hill, who was shot and killed in February while he was walking down the street. The strike comes at a particularly challenging moment for the North High community after two already tough pandemic years.

Still, many of the parents and students said they supported the teachers, and hoped to be back in school soon. 

Kelly, her husband, Elisha Jackson, a volunteer football coach, and their daughter Ramiyah Jackson, the 16-year-old student council president, all wore matching Vikings sweatshirts in the back room of Shiloh Temple.

Kelly, who has been an active parent at North High for four years, said she thought the strike was necessary. Higher pay would help teachers stay at the school, she said. “The turnover is high because they move on, because they just can’t afford to live with the salary that they have,” she said.

Ramiyah said teachers are important role models and provide a sense of home, especially to students whose home lives are difficult.

“Teachers should have the pay that they deserve,” she said. It surprised her that they would have to fight for it, she said. “That’s just at this point kind of dumb.”

Elisha said he understood both sides of the labor dispute. “We should be able to come to some agreement,” he said. “In the end, as long as it’s about the kids, that’s what matters. Because they’re the ones that are suffering.”

Elisha, Ramiyah, and Kelly Jackson wore matching Vikings sweatshirts in the back room of Shiloh Temple. Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

A space for students

Just inside the main entrance of North Community High School, echoes of squeaking sneakers filled the school gym as students dribbled basketballs around the hoops. In a separate adjacent gym, teenagers carefully pieced together Lego sets and jigsaw puzzles while snacking on pizza and Cheetos.

Branch, the community education coordinator, typically runs after-school programs. But since the strike, he’s pushed to get back into the school to host activities for kids. At first, the district said the schools would be totally off-limits during the strike, he said. On Thursday, he got approval to run programs inside the school, and started the next day.

Now, the PTA’s drop-in center at Shiloh Temple operates in the mornings, and the community education programming at the school takes place in the afternoon. On Monday, the first full day of programming, more than 30 kids came to the school.

“I’d rather be at school than stuck at home doing nothing,” said Davieanna Johnson, 15. She wants to come back to class. “There’s a lot of people who need more learning than others.” 

North High students enjoyed playing basketball in their school gym on Monday afternoon, the fifth day of their teachers’ strike. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Elisabeth Gnakadja, 14 and in 9th grade, pieced together a jigsaw puzzle with community education staff. The puzzle, when completed, would show an ice cream parlor made of Legos.

It was difficult to see her teachers on strike, Elisabeth said.

“Seeing the people who work hard to show up and be here for students and make sure we have what we need, but they don’t have what they need, that’s hard,” she said.

Before the community education programming started, Elisabeth spent her days at home reading Rupi Kaur poetry.

“Older kids, we have more of an understanding of what’s going on,” she said. “Younger kids, it’s harder.”

She hoped to come back the next day to finish her puzzle. But more than that, she hopes to go back to class soon.

“I think there’s now more people protesting, the numbers are getting bigger,” Elisabeth said. “So I think that’s more pressure on MPS and Ed Graff to make a change.”

‘If students’ mental health is not good, then how are they supposed to learn?’

At Shiloh Temple, the North High gym, and a protest at Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters, many North High students said they supported their educators’ demands.

Noah Tietjen, a 16-year-old sophomore, said a lot of his friends were glad to not have school. Still, they had questions about the impact of the strike on summer and spring break. (The district has said that school days canceled due to the strike will need to be made up over spring break, by extending the school year in June, or by canceling professional development days. The number of days that need to be made up will vary by school.)

Despite the confusion, Tietjen said he supports the educators. “I feel like it’s necessary to speak up for what you need, so it’s good that they’re standing up,” he said.

Limits on class sizes, one of the teachers’ main priorities, are especially important coming out of distance learning, he said. “Smaller class sizes are really good for one-on-one time” with teachers, he said. “Distance learning never gave that.” The remote learning equivalent of talking individually with a teacher was going into a “breakout room,” he said, which wasn’t the same. 

Still, most of his classes at North are pretty small, he said.

Naiya Walden, a 14-year-old freshman, tossed around a basketball with a friend in the gym.

The best part of the strike, she said, is “we don’t have to work. And the worst part is that we’re going to have to go into the summer, and seniors probably won’t graduate on time.” (The district has said the strike might change graduation dates.)

She agreed with the reasons the teachers are striking, she said. At the beginning of the year, her geometry class had more than 30 kids, and at first some had to stand because the class didn’t have enough chairs, she said. 

But her teachers figured out how to split the class in two. Now her class has about 15 students, she said.

North High students Ramiyah Jackson, Naiya Walden, and Caleb Tietjen pose for a photo together. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Students also voiced support for more student mental health services, such as more counselors. More mental health support professionals in buildings is one of educators’ major demands. 

“If students’ mental health is not good, then how are they supposed to learn?” Ramiyah, the student council president, asked. “Their minds are everywhere.”

After Hill’s death, she said, community members came to help support grieving students. Someone even brought a therapy dog. But typically, there isn’t enough mental health support for students, she said.

“We don’t have enough people in the school to help us with that,” she said. “Those are community members. But someone that actually maybe went to college for it.”

Ramiyah has seen mental health needs manifest in student insecurities. Students, accustomed to wearing masks, are more self-conscious about their faces than they were before the pandemic, she said. They also spend more time on their phones. “It’s a lot more than it was before,” she said.

Khadija Ba, a North High senior, addresses the students sitting in at the Davis Center. She said she supported her teachers because they had always supported her. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Khadija Ba, a North High senior, attended a student-led sit-in at the Davis Center, the. Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters. 

She wants to see more mental health support at school, too. “We have a lot of gun problems that happen over here,” she said. “Sometimes students are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we end up losing students or staff.” The schools need more therapists, counselors, and anger management classes to meet students’ needs, she said.

During her freshman year, her teachers, deans, and school counselors helped her through her parents’ divorce, she said.

“High school was such a big change. You find your identity, find your friends, things like that. And then I had this whole other problem with my parents on the side,” she said. But the North High staff taught her to advocate for herself and others, and get through a tough time. 

“Anytime there’s something going wrong for the students, they come out and they fight for us,” Khadija said. “So we might as well do the same for them.”

Ben Hovland contributed reporting.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.