Reviving Washburn’s reputation

After 'musical principals' and town-gown problems, an oft-overlooked high school is experiencing a renaissance

After 'musical principals' and town-gown problems, an oft-overlooked high school is experiencing a renaissanceBy Caitlin Pine

At last month's Minneapolis Public School Choice Fair, Anthony Middle School 8th grader Clare Dickey epitomized the feelings of many Southwest-area families when she said she isn't considering Washburn High School.

"I want to go an Ivy League college, and Washburn -- in comparison to other schools -- doesn't have a good enough reputation," said Dickey, who lives in Lynnhurst.

In the past, Washburn's programs weren't successful competitors with the premier academic programs at South and Southwest high schools.

However, a newly unified administration, along with veteran teachers, parents and students at Washburn, 201 West 49th St., say they are on the road to rebuilding the school's beleaguered reputation.

"I think we've had a lukewarm reputation," said Principal Steve Couture, who has headed Washburn for three years. "This school has strong math and science departments. Over time, we can make a dent in these older attitudes. We had a big incoming class this year, and with them we can start building back the reputation."

School Board President Catherine Shreves agrees that Washburn hasn't enjoyed a popular reputation in the neighborhood. The school's immediate neighbors have long battled Washburn's administration to decrease student parking and traffic on residential streets; they also want students to have less freedom to leave the school building during school hours. "Just from a neighborhood chatter perspective, that had an impact on families believing that this is a school that's working," said Shreves.

Yet there is solid evidence the reputation is changing for the better. Eric Schneider, an assistant principal at Washburn, said the school is seeing a resurgence of interest by families living closest to the school. "The message I've given to families is that most of our programs will be closed after the first round, based on the increase of the popularity of our programs and the increase in support from neighborhood families," said Schneider.

Follow the numbers

Washburn has not been a popular choice with Southwest-area students.

Minneapolis lets 8th graders choose among all city high schools, each with specialized programs. Each high school also has an attendance area for students who don't pick, or can't get into, a specific academic program. Washburn's is roughly bordered by 36th Street, Logan Avenue South, Cedar Avenue South and the Crosstown Highway.

School-choice data from 8th-graders in Southwest-area schools shows:

– At Barton Open, 4237 Colfax Ave. S., a clear majority chose South High's Open program.

– At Lake Harriet Upper School, 4912 Vincent Ave. S., most chose Southwest, their area high school.

– Students from schools in Washburn's attendance area -- Anthony Middle, 5757 Irving Ave. S., and Ramsey International Fine Arts, 1 W. 49th St. -- split among South, Southwest and Washburn.

Washburn did not draw the majority of 8th graders at any school.

Anthony Guidance Counselor Greg Heimel said it is difficult for any one teacher or administrator to change students' perceptions about schools. "Students have pre-conceived notions about all schools. They often have concerns that are based on rumor and myth. I encourage them to visit the schools to make their own impression," said Heimel.

A revival

Washburn engineering teacher Perry Ruedy knows that many parents and students get their first -- and sometimes only -- impression of Washburn from talking to neighbors.

Ruedy, an energetic and motivated teacher, hopes that Washburn can get more students to walk into the front door. Once inside, he is confident that Washburn has the academics, extra activities and closely knit community for students to stay. "We're all a big family here," he said.

Ruedy is excited about a college-preparatory engineering program, "Project Lead the Way," that made its Minnesota debut in Minneapolis Public High Schools this year.

Though the curriculum is taught at four MPS high schools, only Washburn secured federal funding that transformed Ruedy's classroom into a state-of-the-art computer lab -- with 30 new computers loaded with engineering and graphic design software, supported by a server even bigger than the district's main server.

Technical-design and architecture students now print their drawings from a plotter -- a specialized printer that produces professional-quality drawings. The curriculum is complemented by enrichment activities such as building robots.

Ruedy says credit for the lab belongs to Principal Couture, who wanted it to be the district's top lab for years to come.

Washburn parents Char Anderson and Stan Ellison said their 9th-grade son, Sam, a graduate of Annuciation parochial school, 525 W. 54th St., would be attending Minnehaha Academy were it not for Washburn's technology programs.

While South and Southwest's academic programs enjoy the best reputations, both feature liberal arts programs that don't allow students to specialize in any one area.

Anderson, an engineer, and Ellison, a geologist/lawyer, said their son, who excels in math and science, wouldn't enjoy a liberal arts curriculum.

"It really bothers me that parents think that because they have a bright kid, the only option is the liberal arts programs," Anderson said. "I don't understand the aversion to technology. I think Sam is getting a well balanced education with technology in addition to the traditional liberal arts classes."

Anderson's son is part of a group of 10 Annunciation 8th-graders who came to Washburn last year. In the past, most Annunciation graduates went to Holy Angels, a Catholic high school in Richfield. But Anderson said the choices Washburn offers --from engineering to aviation programs (see sidebar below) -- far exceeded the options at private schools. No other school had a comparable computer lab.

"The Open House really opened my eyes," she said. "What most impressed us was the enthusiasm and passion of the teachers. I mean there's something like 11 faculty members here now who are Washburn graduates."

Cake eaters

Back when those teachers graduated from high school, in the '50s, '60s and '70s, Washburn enjoyed one of the best reputations in the state. Other schools called them the "cake eaters," but Washburn students embraced the taunt, which they attributed to the strength of their community, academics and athletics.

However, times changed. Other schools created magnet programs that drew students away from their "home" schools. The loss of nearby students created room for more minority students; of the three Southwest-area high schools, Washburn has the highest population of African-American students (see sidebar, below right).

Former Washburn principal Joyce Lewis-Lake attributes the higher African-American student body to Washburn's more central location in the city. "Minneapolis neighborhoods are changing, and the school reflects the neighborhood…. Southwest High School is almost in Edina, it's pretty far away from the rest of the city," said Lewis-Lake.

Meanwhile, Washburn became a revolving door for principals.

Since 1982, only one Washburn principal, Ronald Chall ('94-'98), has stayed longer than three years. During the same period, Southwest has had one principal stay for seven years, and another for eight (see sidebar, right).

Washburn's turnover hurt the school's public relations more than anything else, said former Washburn English teacher Judy Yung. "From a teacher's perspective, we continued to teach, and the principal turnover didn't overly affect the quality of the school's academics. But parents couldn't develop a long-range plan when the principal was always changing," said Yung.

Linda Jury, parent of two South High grads and whose youngest son, Alex, graduated from Washburn in 2000, agrees. "The effects had more to do with morale over a long period of time," said Jury, who also volunteers at Washburn.

Chall -- the longest-tenured Washburn principal, who now heads Minnetonka's Hopkins High --said that when he first came to Washburn, he saw what administrative upheaval does to teachers. "When you have musical principals like they had at Washburn, there is a void in stability and teachers have to pick up the slack," he said. "It's tough for teachers to get resources or support. And if your boss keeps getting changed, it's hard to commit."

Two principals in the late '90s were particularly bad fits, said some teachers and parents. In 1998, Superintendent Carol Johnson picked suburban middle-school principal Deborah Brooks-Golden to head Washburn. According to Ruedy, Brooks-Golden had three strikes against her: she was not the first choice of the selection committee, she had come from a suburban school district, and she had not led a high school before.

Brooks-Golden was moved after her first year at Washburn. Her replacement, Minneapolis school administrator Lewis-Lake, left for a charter school one year later.

Two teachers interviewed said Brooks-Golden was set up to fail because she was too inexperienced, and that Lewis-Lake came in with a bias to "straighten out" Washburn and unfairly singled out individual teachers.

Brooks-Golden said she felt "phenomenal" support from the Washburn community and never felt unprepared for her work.

Superintendent Johnson agrees. "Though the teachers may believe that they got Brooks-Golden moved, it was a joint decision between Brooks-Golden and the district to give her experience that would insure her success," Johnson said. "Making the right match between principal and school is an art and a science."

Lewis-Lake also speaks well of her time at Washburn. " I was happy with my overall relationship with staff and students," said Lewis-Lake.

Still, parent Linda Jury became aware of a general tension between Lewis-Lake and teachers well into the school year. "A staff member came up to me during parent-teacher conferences and said 'Do you know what's going on here?'"

Bob McCauley, the district's superintendent of high schools, agrees that Washburn's principal turnover has been high. But he says it's part of a national trend of a shortage of qualified administrators.

Still, both South and Southwest have had fewer recent principals than Washburn.

Budget cuts also compounded Washburn's woes. Couture said that Washburn lost its academically intense International Baccalaureate program in 1998, hurting the school's ability to draw academically motivated students.

Changing family history

Though they lived in Washburn's attendance area, Linda Jury's two oldest sons never considered attending Washburn. They graduated from South High's liberal arts program.

Alex, the youngest, planned to follow his brothers, but visited Washburn in deference to Peter Haugen, Washburn's head football coach and Alex Jury's Pearl park league football coach.

After a day visit, Alex Jury came home and told his parents that he wanted to go to Washburn. "Well, there was football, but more than that there was this un-definable feeling that he got from Washburn, that it was the right place for him," said Linda Jury. "That's why I think you can't go by a school's reputation alone. You have to visit the school. Because what works for one kid, doesn't with another."

Alex Jury is now in his first year as an engineering student at the Ivy League's Brown University.

This fall, Linda Jury attended Washburn's open house for incoming 9th graders to tell parents what Washburn graduates are capable of. "The open house was overwhelming," she said. "There was tremendous teacher turnout. The gym was filled with families who wanted to talk to teachers about Washburn's programs. There was a real excitement in the air, and a feeling that people were beginning to see Washburn in a different light."

Like Alex Jury, Brett Hirsh also didn't consider Washburn at first. But his parents encouraged him to look at Washburn.

"I liked the idea of one of our kids going to our neighborhood high school," said Fran Hirsch, Brett's mother.

Brett Hirsch said he liked Washburn's four-periods-per-day, alternating-class schedule rather than the standard six-period daily schedule at other schools.

"It makes it so you have an extra day between each class to do your homework. It's easier for those of us who play sports," said Brett Hirsch.

A junior, he now performs in both the marching and jazz bands. "I don't think he could be happier now. He plays soccer and he's in the top 25 percent of the class," said Fran Hirsch.

"I remember how scared we were to send our kids to Anthony [Middle School] from Burroughs [Elementary] because we didn't know anyone who had gone to Anthony," said Fran Hirsch. "But I do think that Washburn is kind of jewel in the rough. It's getting better every day."