Fresh faces for a fresh start at Washburn

Fresh start hiring process draws union complaints

TANGLETOWN — More than half of the teacher positions at Washburn High School will be filled by new staff members next fall, a sign to some that the “fresh start” there has gone too far.

Others argue the extensive overhaul is just what the troubled school needed, as painful as it may be.

As the scale of change in store for Washburn became clearer in June, debate intensified over the fresh start. Like hitting reboot on a computer, the school will start over next year with mostly new teachers and additional resources.

At the same time, the process for filling more than 30 teacher openings created by Washburn’s fresh start drew a complaint from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

Washburn Principal Carol Markham-Cousins said she was prepared for a bumpy ride when the district selected her school and Edison High School for fresh starts this spring.

“This has caused enormous disruptions,” Markham-Cousins said. “For what reason? Because it’s a huge change from the status quo.”

Chief Academic Officer Bernadeia Johnson released a letter to parents in June, reminding them that the status quo at Washburn and Edison had been “chronic underperformance coupled with a steep decline in student enrollment over the past five years.”

Washburn has about 60 teacher positions, all of which opened this spring when the fresh start was announced.

Markham-Cousins said 42 Washburn teachers chose to re-interview at the school and 25 teachers were hired. As of mid-June, 14 more teachers had been hired from elsewhere in the district, bringing the total to 39 teachers hired for this fall.

Markham-Cousins planned to expand her search outside Minneapolis to fill the remaining teacher positions, pending approval from the district.

Disruption, for good or bad

Linda Shay, former president of the Washburn parent council, said the fresh start had divided parents and “wreaked havoc” for students during the last few weeks of her daughter Elizabeth’s senior year. Still, Shay maintained the extensive staffing changes were for the best.

Shay said she watched for years as her neighbors chose other schools with better reputations over Washburn. And while her child succeeded at Washburn, she said some of her classmates, especially minority students, were let down. Some dropped out.

“I think that it is so important we fix why those kids aren’t getting their needs met,” she said.

The cuts went “too deep” for parent Michelle Ingersoll, whose son, Ian, will be a senior at Washburn next year. Ingersoll said Washburn might take longer than anticipated to recover from the teacher turnover.

“I have a senior who only has one year left and now you’ve disrupted his life,” she said.

Ingersoll said the district for years did not provide Washburn with enough resources or attention, and now teachers would take the blame.

“The insult to this whole thing was that somehow these problems at Washburn ended up on the backs of these teachers,” she said.

Union grievance

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has been clear in its opposition to fresh starts, which have been used at seven district schools since 1996. Edison and Washburn were the first high schools to be fresh-started.

This time around, the union filed a grievance with the district, arguing new hires were made in violation of a memorandum of agreement approved in January by union and district leaders.

Former teachers’ union President Robert Panning-Miller said the memorandum specifically called for use of the “interview-and-select” hiring process at fresh start schools. But it didn’t work that way at Edison and Washburn, Panning-Miller said.

He said an Edison and Washburn job fair in June was open to employees who had not previously expressed interest in one of the schools, including some who already had jobs elsewhere in the district.

“No other interview-and-select site is able to do that,” he said.

Several weeks later, Washburn and Edison positions were off-limits at a placement session for district employees still looking for jobs in the fall. They were off-limits, Panning-Miller said, so that former Washburn and Edison employees would have no chance to regain their old jobs.

“I don’t think that teachers are excited to go back and work with an administration that doesn’t want them,” he said, “but, in talking to the teachers at Washburn and Edison, the teachers who were kicked out, many of them still want to teach at Edison and Washburn because of the kids and because of what was going on there, in spite of [the schools’] administration(s).”

Emma Hixson, the district’s executive director of employee relations, said hiring at Washburn and Edison followed established practice for fresh start schools. The memorandum did not cover new fresh starts, just old ones, Hixson added.

“It has fresh start language in it,” she said, “but that was specifically in reference to the schools that were fresh-started last year: Lucy Laney and Nellie Stone Johnson [community schools.]”

A fresh opportunity

Markham-Cousins said she “would have loved a better working relationship with the union” during the fresh start, but was pressing forward.

“I believe the union, the parents and those of us at the district level, we have the same goal … and that is to [provide] the best education for all kids,” she said.

On her new team, there are a number of teachers ready to embrace the opportunity — teachers like veteran vocal music teacher Nancy Lee, who joins Washburn next fall after eight years at Southwest High School.

“I built Southwest’s vocal program from nothing, and I think I have one more of those in me,” Lee said.

She expected hard feelings to linger next year among some students and returning teachers, but maintained the fresh start was a “great idea.”

Said Lee, “I think Washburn is a school that can succeed.”