FULDA, MINN. – Claire Westra isn’t even halfway through her senior year at Fulda High School, but the 17-year-old is already looking ahead to next year at the University of Kansas, where she plans to study music therapy.
To get a head start on her college coursework, and to help save money on university tuition, Westra enrolled in composition and macroeconomics for college credit in the Postsecondary Education Options (PSEO) program offered through the Fulda school district. It’s a program that’s been around since 1985, when the Legislature created it to give more opportunities to the state’s top-performing high schoolers.
But today, in an era of tight budgets and shrinking enrollment, PSEO isn’t playing so well in Fulda, a small district about 170 miles southwest of the Twin Cities.
Some students and parents say that Fulda school officials have discouraged students from enrolling in PSEO, with school board members actively lobbying families not to sign up their children for the classes.
The students who did sign up — 10 in a secondary school of about 170 — are actually ordered out of the school building every day during the hours they’re doing their college classwork online.
Some go home and return to school later in the day. Others, who live on distant farms, must scramble to find a place to study online in a town with 1,300 people, no coffee shops and only one public Wi-Fi spot. With nowhere else to go, one student from a farm family went to the City Council and pleaded for special permission to hang out at City Hall to do her college coursework when the school forces her out.
Westra said she feels “betrayed” by the school district’s hostility.
“I go to school every day and I see these adults who are supposed to help me grow and learn,” she said, shaking her head. Frustrated, her family is considering a lawsuit against the school district, claiming that its actions have hindered her access to lawful educational opportunities.
Colleges get state money
Fulda isn’t the only district that has discouraged students from enrolling in college classes — or shooed from its buildings those who do. Rural districts across the state are worried about the issue.
While taking the classes in high school can save students and their families thousands of dollars in college tuition, the state student aid money that would normally go to the high school goes to the college instead. In Fulda, the district could lose as much as $6,174 for a PSEO student who takes no high school classes.
“It is a bigger issue with the smaller, rural districts — absolutely,” said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. The situation can become a vicious cycle, she said, with “small districts losing enrollment to PSEO and not being viable to offer more specialized classes, because they don’t have the funding, because they don’t have the enrollment.”
The Fulda district said it’s not responsible for its high school students during times they’re not taking high school classes — even if that means booting them from the building several times during the school day, with winter fast approaching.
“The District has acted lawfully and prudently in safeguarding finite resources and the school’s learning environment for the benefit of the entire school community,” Superintendent Luther Onken said in a written statement. The district seeks to “[use] resources for the benefit of the District’s student body as a whole, rather than a few students.” Onken said the district can’t afford to supervise and provide equipment for students who aren’t taking high school courses.
“The District needed to act to address these issues before they could cause a long-term detrimental impact on the district’s students and employees,” he said.
Westra’s mother has her own translation of the district’s position.
“The superintendent told us point-blank: ‘You want her in the building, you take our classes,’ ” Kayla Westra said. “There was no beating around the bush at all.
“This policy is absolutely meant to keep kids from taking college classes outside of what the high school offers,” she said. “He’s told the kids straight-up that his job is to fill those classes and keep the teachers employed.”
The PSEO program’s popularity has grown in recent years, with enrollment up nearly 40 percent between 2009 and 2016, according to Department of Education figures.
About 7,800 Minnesota high schoolers enrolled in PSEO courses this year — nearly 13 percent of the roughly 61,000 students in grades 10 through 12 who are eligible. Seniors must be in the top half of their class to enroll in PSEO, juniors in the top third and sophomores in the top tenth.
And in a small district, it takes only a few kids enrolling in PSEO classes to put a real dent in the budget. That leads some districts to discourage students from signing up.
“I am familiar with creative efforts districts use to limit this,” said Laura Bloomberg, an associate dean at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School and a former K-12 administrator and principal. Some schools do not inform students of PSEO options, she said. Some use weighted grading systems that give students more points for high school classes than for college courses.
“I find them kind of insidious practices that have a chilling effect on children’s access,” Bloomberg said. But the financial threat to districts “is real,” she added. “I am sympathetic.”
In Fulda, the dispute has created tension in a place where everyone’s lives are tightly bound. Several parents and students declined to talk about the issue, saying they feared that teachers and neighbors might hold it against them. The high school principal, Gregg Slaathaug, has been firm in his refusal to accommodate the PSEO students, several parents said. Slaathaug — who also teaches social studies, serves as the school’s athletic director and coaches the girls’ basketball team — was not available for comment.
“Kids say things; there are anti-PSEO sentiments,” said Lisa Onken, whose daughter Bailey is a PSEO student and has Slaathaug as a teacher. “And she has to sit in class and stare down Mr. Slaathaug.” (Lisa Onken is not related to the district superintendent.)
Serving the student
“What’s going on is tragic,” said Joe Nathan, head of the Center for School Change, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that works to increase student achievement.
“I think, unfortunately, we have some educators in the state who have forgotten that the system is supposed to serve the student.”
Cassellius said it’s time for educators — and the Legislature — to rethink the final years of high school, both coursework and funding.
“Changing the funding at the Legislature is important,” she said, urging lawmakers “to think proactively about what is the next era of PSEO, as we blend grades 11-14.
“Many of our kids are ready to start [college] earlier, and yet their graduation requirements look like what you and I had,” she said. “PSEO needs to grow up into the next phase, given the shift in the workforce and the shift in technology and how we’re thinking about career and college readiness.”