A dramatically different vision for high schools

Redesign offers glimpse into long-term strategic planning

In early October, a group of Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) parents got their first public glimpse of a major redesign of the district’s high schools.

If adopted by the Minneapolis school board, the changes could reshape high schools across the city and expand access to rigorous programs like International Baccalaureate, beginning as soon as next school year.

It could also make the high school experience look a lot more like college. After completing their general requirements, students would choose a focus of study — something like a college major — for the 11th and 12th grades.

The sweeping redesign goes even further and touches on professional development of teachers, when and where students take classes, and the benchmarks that will track student learning, among other areas.

Reactions from members on the District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC) ranged from excitement to cautious optimism to nervousness. But many of the DPAC members — elected parent representatives from across the city — agreed high schools need an overhaul.

Chief Academic Officer Bernadeia Johnson said major change was needed to close the persistant achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Johnson said there was also a "college-readiness gap" for district graduates who went on to postsecondary education. Many arrived at institutions of higher learning in need of remedial courses, potentially setting them off course for college graduation and "meaningful" employment, she said.

"High schools are not working for all students," Johnson said.

Christ Stewart, who has agitated for bold reforms since his election to the Minneapolis School Board a year ago, said the high school plan was the type of "radical change" he’d been waiting to see.

Stewart said the high school plan was also a glimpse of how the big ideas expected to come from the district’s long-term strategic planning process will be translated into specific action.

Brenda Cassellius, the district assistant superintendent leading high school reform, said the high school plan was still in a design phase. In its current form, the plan would create three different types of high schools.

The first, the proposed "comprehensive high schools" most closely resembled high schools as they exist now. These schools would offer four core programs: Advanced Placement; International Baccalaureate; College in the Schools; and the district’s career and technical education programs.

Cassellius said some students would choose to attend a comprehensive school all four years and take a wide range of classes, like a college liberal arts major.

The second, a "small specialty school," on the other hand, would offer a narrower educational focus to students interested in law, fine arts or another specific topic. The number and type of specialty schools was yet to be determined, she said.

"It’s really dependent on the funding and partnerships that we can secure and student interest around small schools," she said.

And third, students with serious academic or behavioral issues will be funneled into the proposed "success schools" — some just for a short time until they are ready to rejoin their classmates.

Johnson said the success schools were designed to lower the district’s high school dropout rate, which was at about 3.4 percent in 2006. Students will be retained with intensive counseling and academic support, she said.

District administrators refer to the high school plan as their "big idea."

Like any big idea, it was accompanied by big questions.

Judy McQuade, who represents South and Southwest parents, asked if the district’s small specialty schools could support sports and extracurricular activities, two things she saw as essential to the high school experience.

Several Southwest parents also wondered how quickly the program could be implemented. Some families in the Washburn High School attendance area lobbied for an International Baccalaureate program at their school, but plans to expand the program were halted last year.

Cassellius said later that the comprehensive high school model aims to make the program available to all district students.

"That will be demonstrated very shortly in terms of our support that we’re already going to give Washburn in ’07 and ’08," she added.

Another area parent, Jean Rokke, wondered aloud at the meeting if high school students were ready to be placed on track to a future profession by choosing a major focus.

Board member Stewart, a parent of teenagers, sympathized with the concern.

"One day they want to speak Farsi and join the FBI; another day they’re going to be an MTV host," he said.

The goal, he said, is to give all students a solid foundation for the future, no matter what classes they take in high school.

"Some parents have said to me, ‘All kids aren’t going to college,’" Stewart said.

If that’s the case, he said, it should be the student’s choice, not because Minneapolis Public Schools didn’t prepare that
student.