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Kip Wennerlund has led parent complaints that Washburn High in Minneapolis isn’t challenging enough for students like his daughter, Elina, a ninth-grader.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Washburn High: In serving all, does it sacrifice some?

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune
  • March 14, 2012 - 10:14 PM

Elina Wennerlund likes her new high school just fine. The Washburn High School freshman has gone out for soccer, cross-country skiing and jazz choir.

It's classes that bother her. Too many of them are too easy. Elina often finishes her work early. "Sometimes, we're just sitting there," she said.

As the Minneapolis School District reaches the second year of driving for increased rigor for all high school students, some parents worry that rigor for high-achieving students is being sacrificed.

At Washburn, a corps of dissatisfied parents led by Elina's father have challenged the principal's philosophy of putting all freshmen and sophomores into the same core classes, regardless of ability.

For Principal Carol Markham-Cousins, increasing rigor for all students means putting lower-achieving students in classes with higher achievers and expecting all to perform at a high level. She argues that's a key part of her continuing turnaround efforts at Washburn, which increasingly is regarded as a school on the upswing. She describes her approach with lower-ability students as "You do high-level work, and I will help you get there."

But district leaders admit the drive for rigor has had uneven execution and promise further efforts to standardize high school classes across Minneapolis.

When school board member Richard Mammen attended Washburn in the late 1960s, he recalls it being labeled as the "cake-eater" school for its share of middle- or upper-income households. In the 1980s, Washburn lost status when the district switched to high school magnet programs. That prompted a brain drain from the Washburn attendance area to Southwest and South high schools, widely regarded as college prep public schools.

Washburn's nadir came in 2008, a year after Markham-Cousins arrived, and the district ordered a fresh start for the school so that faculty had to reapply for their jobs. About 40 percent stayed. The district's decision in 2010 to make high school attendance areas more rigid forced more high-achieving students to choose Washburn.

Now enrollment is up. Test scores are rising. Reading proficiency jumped markedly last year, although math and science scores are lower and rising only slowly. In one sign of the school's renaissance, students from Barton Open School, who have the option to attend South's open program, for the first time largely opted for Washburn last fall.

But some parents say their kids aren't challenged enough or don't get enough high-level courses. Margaret Richardson cited her son, a junior. "Ninth and tenth grade were very easy for him. He did most of his homework in class. I'd say he sat on the academic couch for a couple of years. It was not what we had hoped," Richardson said. That made his transition more rugged when he hit the more rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) classes offered to juniors and seniors. IB, Advanced Placement and College in the Schools courses are part of the rigor that the district said it wants at all high schools.

The case against Markham-Cousins' approach was laid out in greatest detail by Kip Wennerlund in a letter last month to school board members after his overtures to the principal and her superiors left him feeling disregarded. Wennerlund described a one-size-fits-all curriculum that doesn't offer its students what students get at South and Southwest with administrators unwilling to change. South and Southwest allow higher-achieving students to choose more challenging courses both early and late in high school -- both offer about twice as many math options as Washburn, for example.

"This approach is not working for potentially high-achieving students who are not challenged to achieve at a high level," Wennerlund wrote.

Markham-Cousins, who wins praise from parents for passionate dedication to Washburn, said she met with Wennerlund for two hours and has exchanged repeated e-mails. Markham-Cousins conceded "there are some people coming in expecting something different from what they've received." She said all high schools are still implementing IB and additional rigorous courses, and she's seeking more money to support students.

The district's chief academic officer, Emily Puetz, who inherited the high school revamp, said the district still has much to do to create uniformity. Classes at different schools have the same name but different content or different names and the same content, according to Puetz. She wants to get math course sequences and content in better sync for next fall, with other disciplines to follow. But she warns that with schools like the highly sought Southwest and South twice the size of others, it's hard to offer the same advanced courses everywhere. That may require a combination of online classes and circuit-riding teachers.

Terrance Reisch, who works as a teacher in Lakeville, said he doesn't regret his daughter's choice of Washburn and credits Markham-Cousins with making the school safer, more respectful and with fewer cliques. But he questions whether she's the right person to offer the greater rigor parents seek. In a recent online post, he termed her overly protective of lower-performing students. He contends that shielding them is misguided in a competitive world.

Reisch also disputes the principal's insistence that teachers can parse their teaching sufficiently to meet the needs of several dozen students of low to high ability. "Every honest teacher knows that doesn't happen," he said. Some parents point to state testing results to bolster that point. For both students who made and missed proficiency in reading and math, Washburn topped area schools for its share of students making only low growth.

Another Washburn parent who has worked as a teacher, Chris Hagedorn, said Markham-Cousins has acknowledged the issue of rigor in the school's leadership council but has left parents in the dark about how it's being addressed.

Parent Mike DeVaughn, who co-chairs the school leadership council, said he and his daughter went through her three years of classes at length and he asked her if they were too easy. "Her answer emphatically was no," he said.

DeVaughn, a college business prof, ascribes the angst of demanding parents to anxiety about whether their Washburn kids will get into the same selective colleges as some at Southwest and South. "I'm here to tell you that these kids are going to have good outcomes," he said. Once Washburn seniors demonstrate that, he added, "I think a lot of this is going to melt away."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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