Great opportunity, major test for Iron Range schools

This is my Sunday column for the May 5, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Great opportunity, major test for Iron Range schools
By Aaron J. Brown

At a glance, there’s nothing special about the Iron Range. Old houses built for workers. Streets stained red from the ore that brought the town to life, and death, and life again. Elaborate brick schools built for another time.

A wider view, however, reveals subtle miracles. Few mining towns last a century. Ours have lasted longer. Few blue collar places produce as many educated professionals as we have. This region burst out of WWII to turn the children and grandchildren of immigrants into doctors, lawyers and businesspeople. One of them became Bob Dylan.

Leaders emerged, such as the progressive Republican Victor Power in the 1910s and ‘20s and DFLer Rudy Perpich, who rose to prominence in the 1960s before becoming governor in 1978 at the height of Range growth. People like them literally paved the streets over the howls of the mining companies. This allowed a sea of new citizens to build a society governed by one binding principle, sacred above all else: Our children must have access to all opportunities this world offers. Two generations broke themselves, abandoned youthful dreams, sacrificed dignity and even their lives to make this so. And it was made so.

This story, however, doesn’t end with the soft opiate of nostalgia. In the 1980s, the collapse of the steel industry ran a lance through the brawn of the Iron Range, felling it like timber. We rose, wounded. It appeared the wound was not mortal, but wounds such as this are as tricky as the new economy that rendered them.

I attended Cherry High School, east of Hibbing on the Mesabi Iron Range. My family was as much from Cherry as it was from any town on the Range. We moved a lot. My dad grew up moving a lot. Truck stops and old shops in the woods. Diesel engines splayed out like butcher’s meat. Layoffs and lost homes. Our surname, among the most common in the English language, carried no significance when I enrolled in the public schools of the Iron Range. But my classmates and I were given a small gift, pieced out in advanced reading classes and the notes of classical music: we were made aware that with hard work we could go to college and become something of our own making.

Beginning just before my graduation in 1998 until the present, my school saw its enrollments drop with the delayed population losses from that grave economic injury of the 1980s. Its budget was slashed, partly for loss of students and partly through a political unraveling of attitudes about public education.

The same was true of all schools on the Range, an entire region watching our sacred values die before us. Some watched sadly while others averted their eyes. Some walked away while others pretended that this travesty would correct itself if we hoped beyond fervent hopes for a miracle.

To be blunt, this miracle was widely considered to be political leadership in St. Paul that would deliver more money for education. But after Rudy Perpich lost in 1990, we hadn’t had a governor willing to do that until 2010. We hadn’t had a corresponding legislature willing to do that until four months ago. Let us not dance around the reality here: if you felt pain these last two decades watching teachers laid off, curriculum stripped to the bone, students graduating unready for college, unable to pay for college, adrift in a merciless world, well, this is it. This is the moment you hoped for.

Read the news from St. Paul this month. Note the activities of your local schools, as they are promised stability not seen in the lifetimes of their students. See how this region’s mineral wealth is being used for the betterment of people.

In a piece such as this, I considered detailing the specifics about per pupil formulas and mineral tax revenues. I weighed stern lectures about how the money should be spent and what the goals should be. But such efforts would distract from the true purpose of today’s screed.

The future of the Range relies not on blustery politicians or high minded newspaper columnists like me. The future of the Range rests with the great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren of the pioneers, the infinite descendents of the original peoples of this land. The future rests with new residents and new ideas. The future, quite simply, is yours.

We must truly believe that our children can do better than us. Not just “us,” but all of us together. No, not a guarantee, but the earnest possibility of a good life in this changing world. Only when we believe this is possible will we act. Only when we act will it be so. And it can be so. And it should be so.

For the love of our parents and grandparents who sacrificed for us, engage in your communities. Engage in your schools. Be willing to abandon what doesn’t work for ideas that do. Do not accept high class sizes, wasteful spending or classes that produce widgets instead of humans.

This is our last chance. The people will go on, but the Iron Range as a special place will not. Unless we succeed in this.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on public stations.


  1. Over the past couple of weeks Minnesota’s proficiency tests, created to ensure all public school students are learning what they should in the classroom, have been voted out by the DFL controlled legislature.

    This “dumbing down” the value of a diploma by the legislature we put in four months ago doesn’t bode well for Minnesota’s future.

    We can rename Sturgeon Lake to Lake Wobegon and have our Iron Range teachers declare all our students above average and give them all a trophy…but that won’t cut it when they leave home and compete in the real world against private school graduates and Asian country graduates.

    Dylan understands the real world -“Now you don’t talk so loud, now you don’t seem so proud, about having to be scrounging for your next meal”

    You’re correct, our public schools don’t have to be failures. But our government certainly isn’t providing leadership to make them better.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.