Pulling the plug on a healthy program

Southwest High School program ends less than two months after welcoming its first class

LINDEN HILLS — For the students in Southwest High School’s Health, Wellness and Fitness program, it was over almost as soon as it began.

As Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) embarks on an ambitious high school reform plan, it is beginning to pare down students’ options in order to strengthen the programs that remain. Health, Wellness and Fitness — one of the district’s 23 focused high school programs known as small learning communities — was the first to go, and more may follow.

When word got out in October that Health, Wellness and Fitness would be discontinued at the end of this school year, it was a surprise to many students and their parents. The brand new program had welcomed its first class of freshmen less than two months earlier.

Southwest Principal Bill Smith said students and parents couldn’t be blamed for feeling they’d had the rug pulled out from under them.

"I’m sure some will [feel that way] and that’s unfortunate," Smith said. "Yes, they signed on for one thing and that’s not going to happen. And that’s a shame."

Program Director Ed Roche said more than half of about 70 students in the program listed Health, Wellness and Fitness as their first choice when applying to small learning communities as eighth-graders.

Elizabeth McIntosh, a student in the program, said she signed up to learn more about health careers. Health, Wellness and Fitness was designed to offer internships and job-shadowing opportunities when students reached their junior and senior years.

"I’m kind of disappointed," McIntosh, who plans to become a doctor or nurse, said. "I don’t know how else I’m going to learn about health."

Roche, who spent a year planning for the program, said he was in talks with Allina, Fairview Health Services and other local health care providers to form partnerships with Southwest. Jobs in the health care field are "abundant," he said, and the district was missing out on the chance to prepare students to take those jobs.

"I don’t know what the district’s plans are," he said. "I don’t know if it’s a lost opportunity or they have a grander scheme."

Part of a plan
The grander scheme — although district administrators might not use that phrase — is a major redesign of the city’s high schools. If approved by the school board, the plan would pare down the menu of 23 small learning communities currently offered to students.

When Chief Academic Officer Bernadeia Johnson presented the plan to the District Parent Advisory Council in October, she told them: "We’re giving choice, but we’re focusing choice."

The foundation of the plan is built on a new "comprehensive high school" model. These schools would offer only four core programs: International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, College in the Schools and career and technical education.

Themed programs would find a home in "small specialty schools" consisting of just a few hundred students.

Brenda Cassellius, the associate superintendent leading the redesign process, has said the number and type of small specialty schools would be determined by student interest in a particular area, such as fine arts, law or health careers.

In the end, though, the total number of programs will be fewer.

Several programs may end over the next few years. Health, Wellness and Fitness, a young program with relatively few students and little investment, had been targeted "for a while," said Craig Vana, an associate superintendent involved in high school redesign.

"Since it had only been in place for a year, this would be the time then, to phase it out right now," Vana said. "The reality is there will be a reduction in some of those small learning communities because we can’t support all the choice."

Elizabeth McIntosh’s mother, Becky, said she heard rumors the program lacked district support. It made her wonder why parents and students weren’t brought into the discussion earlier.

"It starts to question the credibility of the high schools," she said.

Roche, the program coordinator, said even he hadn’t known for certain the program would end until he heard it from a reporter.

Sally Centner, former co-president of the Southwest Parent Teacher Student Association, said the news about Health, Wellness and Fitness could further unnerve parents already concerned about the state of high schools. Parents of 8th graders, especially, want to know what to expect next year.

“Those of us who have 8th graders now, there’s a lot of anxiety,” Centner said.

Students are safe
One thing is certain: Health, Wellness and Fitness students will still have a place at Southwest next year.

"We’ll work with the students and families," Smith said. "If they want to stay here [at Southwest], they’re here."

That assurance was enough for Elizabeth McIntosh.

"I like the school," she said. "As much as I’m disappointed, I like the school."

Zac Chelberg, one of her classmates, said he wouldn’t mind joining one of Southwest’s other programs, either.

Chelberg said one of the selling points for Health, Wellness and Fitness was a requirement to get regular exercise throughout the school year. The new fitness room installed for students will still be around, even if the program isn’t.

"I just joined to get in shape," he said.

Smith said Health, Wellness and Fitness students probably would not have a hard time joining another program as sophomores. During their freshman year, they will complete much of the same fundamental coursework as other students at Southwest, he said.

Smith said he, too, was "disappointed" the program was cancelled so quickly. He added, though, that younger students — especially today’s middle school students — have a lot to look forward to in the new high school plan.

"I think the future looks very, very interesting for them," he said.