Then the school got a new administration, new expectations, and new digs. The district cleaned house and installed different administrators, who immediately addressed what they saw as a systematic failure in the relationship between students and teachers. "We understand these hardships," explains Michael Vukovich, the current principal, "but in order to break these cycles of poverty in our community, we have to educate our kids and get them to college and get them degrees."
"You can't do that by letting them sleep in class," says Vukovich. "You can't do that by giving them packets of work instead of teaching material. We can't control some of the things that these kids endure when they leave our building. But when they're in, we can hold them to these expectations."
For teachers, it meant coaching so they could improve. For the building, it meant $14 million in renovations, installing air-conditioning and modernizing. They also used new grants to provide all students with their own laptop—today, students are assigned individual iPads. Add to that a new dress code for students and teachers, the elimination of in-school suspensions and detentions, and a strengthened effort to quickly clear the hallways between classes, and the school's transformation was underway.
Last year, the school hit 58.3 percent proficiency in reading—almost a 20-point increase. Five years ago, there was one Advanced Placement class with 11 students. Now, there are 12 with 600 total enrollments. North High School started offering AP Spanish to students for the first time last year. Eight students chose to the take the test, and all eight passed and earned college credit.
But Des Moines can't address all of its challenges without putting heavy resources into its growing English Language Leaners program. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, refugees have flocked to Iowa. But the situation is different now then it was 40 years ago, says Vinh Nguyen, one of those refugees from Vietnam, and the current ELL program coordinator for the district.
In the mid-1970s, there were just 300 students in the ELL program, speaking Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong, and Tai Dam. Today, the program serves 6,100 students (20 percent of all Des Moines public-school students), who speak more than 100 languages and dialects. That number grew rapidly just in the past decade, as there were just 26 languages in 2001. Back in the 1970s, the federal and state governments provided ample resources for refugees. That assistance is scant today. Back then, students came to the U.S. knowing how to read and write in their native language. Many students today come illiterate in their native language.
"Every time we have a new population, I sit back and learn about that population and figure out ways to work with them and learn about their community," says Nguyen, who came to the U.S. in 1983. "As soon as I get a good hold of it, a new population comes in. My job is never done."