A school in transition

Washburn swept up in early stages of high school reform

TANGLETOWN — Carol Markham-Cousins said she grew up in the Field neighborhood, just across Interstate 35W from Washburn High School, where she took over as principal this year.

Today, Markham-Cousins’ challenge, or at least one part of it, is to convince families who live in her old neighborhood to send their kids to Washburn. Overwhelmingly, families in this part of the city choose South or Southwest high schools, or  they look outside of the district.

“Right now, the attitude is the school isn’t going to get better until neighborhood kids are going to school [here],” she said.

The challenge Washburn faces to recruit and retain students reflects a larger challenge for Minneapolis Public Schools. The response to that challenge began this past fall, when the district launched an ambitious plan to redesign all seven of the city’s high schools.

The redesign aims to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color, and at the same time better prepare all students for college. Administrators believe better high schools will lead to stronger enrollment, said Associate Supt. Brenda Cassellius, one of the administrators leading the effort.

“As a district in declining enrollment, we want to improve all of our high schools and get our kids back,” Cassellius said.

Redesign began this fall at Edison, North, Roosevelt and Washburn high schools, where the need for change was most acute.

“They had declining enrollments, and they also had significant achievement gaps that we wanted to address more aggressively,” Cassellius said.

The plan attempts to build on the success of popular programs, like International Baccalaureate (IB) at Southwest or South’s liberal arts, which encourages students to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Within a few years, all high schools will offer four core programs: IB, AP, Career and Technical Education and College in the Schools.

Transition year

Markham-Cousins spent the fall visiting area elementary and middle schools, spreading the message about the changes happening at Washburn. She shared elements of the redesign, played-up the school’s smaller class sizes and expressed her support to expand the school’s arts programming.

But when the families of 8th-grade students made their requests for fall high school placement in January, the numbers told a familiar story.

Director of Student Recruitment Jackie Turner said 614 students listed South as their first choice for high school, and another 568 students choose Southwest. Washburn, by comparison, was the first choice of only 186 students, Turner said.

Some students, because of the caps placed on program enrollment, won’t get their first choice. The IB program at Southwest, for instance, routinely gets far more requests than it can hold.

For Washburn, that may be an opportunity.

This year, the school began a two-year application process to the international organization that governs IB. If all goes well, next year’s freshman could graduate from the highly regarded IB diploma programme, said Katie Allebach Franz, a 9th-grade teacher leading the application process.

“I think that, generally, we teachers are very open to having IB at our school and excited about bringing in such a respected program,” Allebach Franz said.

But can a Washburn IB program earn the respect of families?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Allebach Franz acknowledged.

Markham-Cousins said IB was sometimes seen as a “silver bullet,” but said she wasn’t sure it alone would solve Washburn’s enrollment woes.

This year, the school also strengthened ties with the Dunwoody Institute. Soon, students can take courses on electricity and sheet metal at Washburn and earn credit in Dunwoody’s Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning, or HVAC, program.

The partnership is one example of the district’s efforts to link Career and Technical Education courses to college credit and certification programs. In the case of HVAC, students who complete the course at Dunwoody will enter a high-demand, high-pay field, Markham-Cousins said.

Striving for equity

Whether future Washburn students take Career and Technical Education or IB courses — or choose another route — more and more will be expected to take rigorous courses each year, Markham-Cousins said.

That will require improving enrollment in rigorous courses among students of color, who are underrepresented in those classes across the district, with few exceptions.

Last year, African American students made up half of the entire Washburn student body, but they represented only about one-third of students in AP and honors courses. American Indian and Hispanic students were also underrepresented.

By comparison, white and Asian students were overrepresented in rigorous courses.

Eric VanderBerk, a district research specialist, said the rates of disproportionate enrollment in rigorous courses at Washburn placed the school about “in the middle” of the city’s seven high schools. District administrators have said proportionate enrollment in rigorous courses will be one of the main measures of success for high school redesign.

Watching for change

As Washburn made its first steps toward the new high school model, families weighed their options.

Andrea Iten said Washburn seemed like “too big of a risk” for her daughter, now in 8th grade at Anthony Middle School.

Itzen said her family was willing to look outside of the district if her daughter didn’t get into her first-choice high school program.

“She’s going to Southwest IB,” she said. “And if she didn’t get into Southwest IB she was going to Holy Angels.”

Alice Leighton, another Anthony parent, said Washburn was the right choice for her 8th-grader, Andrew. Andrew made Washburn his first choice for high school, putting him “in the minority” among his peers, Leighton said.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the smaller class sizes,” she said. “He also plays sports, and I believe that the teachers and the coaches work pretty closely together to give their student athletes the attention.”

Leighton said she was impressed with Markham-Cousins, and was confident the school would be a different place when her son graduated in four years.

“It’s an important piece of the community,” she said of Washburn. “I feel like it’s our social responsibility to take what you’ve got and make it work.”