Learning through history


Washburn High’s American Studies program expanding to middle schools

TANGLETOWN – With about 120 students this year, the American Studies program was the smallest of three “centers of excellence” at Washburn High School.

In Principal Steven Couture’s estimation, that made it “one of the best-kept secrets around.”

The centers of excellence are Washburn’s version of the small learning communities (SLCs) in place at other Minneapolis high schools. Just like SLCs, the centers of excellence are smaller, focused programs within the school.

Since the history-based program was introduced five years ago, American Studies students have achieved higher attendance and on-time graduation rates than other Washburn students, the school reported. And although Couture can’t credit the program directly, Washburn now has one of the highest graduation rates of any Minneapolis public high school at about 86 percent in 2006.

“Families are looking for quality programs that will get their kids prepared for life after high school,” he said. “Š I think as people hear more about American Studies, it should have a positive influence on our enrollment.”Southwest students and parents should be hearing quite a bit more about American Studies next year. The program will expand into Susan B. Anthony Middle School through a five-year, $975,000 grant from Cargill Foundation.

The grant also creates a similar American Studies pathway from Northeast Middle School to Edison High School.

The move expands a network of 41 history-centered programs sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. All have an emphasis on research, critical thinking, reading and writing.

Primary sources

Susan B. Anthony history teacher Margaret Taft came across Gilder Lehrman several years ago during an Internet search for classroom resources. Taft hit the mother lode.

There are more than 60,000 historical documents dating back to 1439 in the Gilder Lehrman Collection, including letters, maps, photographs, books and artwork. They are what history teachers like Taft refer to as “primary sources.”

The schools in the Gilder Lehrman network emphasize the study of primary sources over textbook interpretations of historical events. Students build their research skills by digging up contemporary accounts of historical events, analyzing the evidence and drawing conclusions about what happened and why.

In other words, Taft said, the students become the historians.

Minneapolis’ American Studies schools will have increased access to the Gilder Lehrman collection, one that is especially valuable for its depth and diversity, Taft said.

“Usually, we get two obvious perspectives, even in our textbooks,” she said. “Gilder Lehrman seems to have more than just the two obvious perspectives.”

Taft said primary resources also enrich the learning experience. When her 6th-grade students recently studied the rise of labor in the United States, she passed around photographer Lewis Hine’s pictures of child laborers taken between 1908 and 1912.

In addition to its support for student learning, Gilder Lehrman strives to keep instructors energized and informed. They sponsor summer staff development workshops with scholars across the country and abroad.

Taft applied for a workshop on the American Civil Rights Movement to be held this summer at University of Oxford in England.

“It’s just a way to keep me better-informed,” she said. “And if I’m passionate about what I’m teaching, I’m a better teacher.”

Success story

Gilder Lehrman Executive Director Lesley Herrmann said the New York-based institute was founded in 1994 when, some felt, history was being sidelined in classrooms.

“There was this tremendous lack of teaching of American history, and there was an attitude on the part of many educators that American history wasn’t important,” Herrmann said.

In 1996, Gilder Lehrman opened the Academy of American Studies in Queens, N.Y., its first “history school.” Instead of taking just one year of American history – the norm at many high schools – students at the academy studied different eras of American history throughout all four years of school.

On its website, Gilder Lehrman cites reports that Academy students now have among the highest attendance and college enrollment rates among New York City schools. And Herrmann added that other history schools have posted gains in standardized test scores.

Gilder Lehrman Education Coordinator Steven Schwartz attributed the success of history schools to the appeal of America’s story.

“It gives [students] a sense of where they came from,” Schwartz said.

He said the institute does not prescribe a curriculum, but instead works with each school to design a curriculum to meet state standards. History is the focus throughout the school day, even in classes like math, English and art.

For example, Schwartz said, students learning about the American Revolution in history class may study a Paul Revere engraving in art class or calculate tariffs with a math teacher.

“It’s a whole-curriculum approach using every discipline,” he said.

Growing interest

Washburn social studies teacher Aaron Percy said the amount of research, reading and writing required of American Studies students ensures they are prepared for the first 15-page essay assignment in college.

“They have a set of skills that, when they go to college, they aren’t going to be intimidated,” he said.

Students and parents are starting to get the message, judging from enrollment trends. The American Studies center of excellence at Washburn, opened in 2002, will welcome its largest freshman class ever in fall 2007, Percy said.

Still, demand for American Studies lags behind that for the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Southwest High School.

Percy said American Studies could be a “hard sell” to parents and students who see IB as the most rigorous and prestigious of the small learning communities. And compared to IB’s global perspective, American Studies might appear limited in scope.

That isn’t the case, Percy argued.

“I would say that it’s the American perspective on the world, how America interacts with the rest of the world,” he said.

Washburn Assistant Principal Karen Heart added that American Studies students typically take a course load heavy with Advanced Placement courses. They participate in the National History Day academic competition at least twice and must complete a major research paper as juniors, Heart said.

Becky Fillmore, whose son Pieter Gagnon is enrolled in both the American Studies and Aviation and Engineering centers of excellence at Washburn, said the program compares favorably with IB at Southwest. Fillmore’s older son, Charles, graduated from Southwest’s IB program in 2006.

Jim Gagnon, the boys’ father, said the study of America’s past has conversely made Pieter more interested in its present.

“I think it’s been beneficial because he’ll come home and talk about world events,” Jim Gagnon said. “I think he’s more interested in current events since he’s been taking this class.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected] or 436-4391.