As I leave six years of rewarding service as principal of Washburn High School, I want to share my high hopes and best thoughts about the important educational work being done there.
Public education is rightfully under scrutiny. We all know the problems. Minnesota has an embarrassing achievement gap. Many schools are underperforming; many students are unprepared, and many parents favor private alternatives.
The good news is that we understand more clearly how education in America needs to transform. This is a new world. The economy is global; communications are instantaneous and ubiquitous, and the communities in which we live, work and interact are deeply diverse.
Where will America find its unique advantage? Many scholars call for students to learn to think and work creatively and productively with individuals from different cultural backgrounds and across disciplinary boundaries.
Washburn has a thrilling array of students of different races, cultures, economic status and abilities. This poses special challenges, and we have faced our share.
More important, schools like Washburn are an ideal environment for transformative education that includes learning the skills to communicate effectively across cultural lines, building the character to appreciate the unique contributions of different classmates, and finding the initiative to chart one’s own path in a setting where everyone is not interested in doing the same thing.
Toward this end, five years ago at Washburn we set out to change the nature of our school. If what we had been doing was not working, how could we transform to achieve a better outcome for all?
At school meetings and in the living rooms of parents, we started to discuss new ideas and the risks involved. Our focus was to bring staff, parents and students together to achieve the best outcome for all students.
One of the risks we took was to challenge the standard assumption that students should be tracked in their first years of high school. We created heterogeneous classes in ninth-grade humanities, then included 10th grade. Special education and English-language learners were included, with specialist support.
Initial evidence demonstrates positive outcomes for all students, both advanced learners and struggling learners. Many of our 2013 graduates will be attending colleges of their choice, including Yale, Brown, Boston University and Macalester.
It is tempting to envision a win-lose situation, where the needs of poor and underperforming students are in conflict with the needs of privileged students. I don’t believe it. Our goal has been to create a community where everybody wins.
Of course advanced learners need challenging opportunities to meet their abilities. They are available. But it has been proven time and again throughout the world that learning in a diverse classroom benefits all students. That is why educators from all over, including me, have been traveling to Finland to understand how equity creates excellence.
A diverse classroom creates an opportunity to stretch students’ minds and hearts in a way that will serve them well. Washburn has numerous beautiful stories of students reaching across boundaries to learn to solve problems together. The irony is that the same equal educational opportunities for poor and underperforming students benefit advantaged students.
I am thankful to the dedicated staff, the committed parents and the openhearted students who have shared this journey with me. I know that there are strong and differing opinions about educational equity, and that it is always a risk to challenge the status quo and try something different.
I also know that together we have increased student enrollment, implemented the International Baccalaureate program, dramatically increased student participation in athletics and the arts, replaced punitive responses with restorative practice and significantly increased the number of students in advanced courses. There is real positive energy at Washburn.
Public education is the cornerstone of our democracy. Let’s hold it to our highest ideals.
Carol Markham-Cousins is the former principal of Washburn High School in Minneapolis.