Changing perspectives on Washburn

After a fresh start, interest in the school is rising

TANGLETOWN — Jennifer Eue of Tangletown said until recently she considered Washburn High School at the bottom of the list for her son, Nate, now an eighth-grader.

“A few years ago we thought if he doesn’t get into Southwest [High School] then we’ll check out private schools,” Eue said. “I mean it’s really changed in the last 18 to 24 months.”

What has changed is her opinion of Washburn, where Nate will be a freshman next fall. And the Eues are not the only family giving Washburn a second look.

One year after the district announced a fresh start for the struggling high school, student placement requests for the 2009–2010 school year rose about 8 percent, the district reported. That was despite predictions that district-wide ninth-grade enrollment would dip next fall.

Nearby South and Southwest high schools historically attracted many more students than Washburn, and that was true again this year. Still, placement requests for Southwest only rose about 3 percent this year over last year, and requests for South were down nearly 13 percent.

Assistant Superintendent Brenda Cassellius took the projected turnaround in enrollment for Washburn as an early sign the fresh start may be working. Cassellius was encouraged by a rise in placement requests from Field Community School and Anthony Middle School, where many neighborhood students attend.

“People are seeing [Washburn] as their neighborhood school again,” she said. “… I live in the community so I’m starting to hear the buzz from my neighbors.”

As families considered their options for the fall, Washburn Principal Carol Markham-Cousins could tout a string of successes to parents.

In March, the Millers boys’ basketball team took the state 3A championship. The school’s first musical in 17 years, “The Wiz,” premiered in April, the same month the Washburn robotics team qualified for a national tournament in Atlanta.

Markham-Cousins also was pushing an ambitious academic agenda, including honors courses for all incoming freshmen.

“There’s energy,” she said. “There’s a real positive energy about the school and about our students and about the potential.”

After the fresh start

Until recently, the buzz around Washburn was not so positive.

Michael DeVaughn, who gathered with a group of prospective Washburn parents in April, put it plainly: “The reputation was low test scores and safety [concerns], quite frankly.”

District officials cited declining enrollment and chronic academic underperformance when they announced a fresh start last March. A kind of last-ditch effort to turn around a school, the fresh start replaced about 60 percent of Washburn’s staff.

What impact the changes might have on test scores still was an open question. Students sat down in April to take the standardized tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind law, but results won’t be available for months.

Various national models for re-starting schools are used in districts across the country. Often, they don’t produce results for three to five years, Cassellius said.

DeVaughn, who lives in Kenny, acknowledged there was scant evidence of the fresh start’s impact, yet. But he and his wife, Michelle, had high expectations for the school their daughter, Audrey, will attend next fall.

“We’re doing this, basically, in our case, on Carol [Markham-Cousin’s] energy,” he said.

Markham-Cousins, who met with small groups of middle-school parents in a series of house parties this spring, had a lot to do with the Eues, DeVaughns and other families looking at Washburn in a new light.

Washburn students, too, are helping to sell the school — even some who weren’t thrilled to end up there last fall, Ed Timek, who has a daughter at Southwest and a son set to attend Washburn, said.

“Last year … people got assigned to Washburn [and] they weren’t happy,” Timek said. “Now, my daughter is friends with a lot of those people, and they ended up really liking it.”

“The kids that are in this year’s group of ninth-graders … they helped sell it to some of these [younger] kids, too,” he said.

Measuring success

For some, the evidence of change at Washburn is cropping up everywhere. But for others — and the district — annual test scores remain an important measure of success.

“I think people want to believe, but they want the proof in the pudding,” Cassellius said.

Markham-Cousins said the state testing requirements painted an unfair picture of Washburn.

“As far as I’m concerned, those assessments keep us stuck,” she said. “I have to live with it. We’ll do it to the best of our ability and, I believe, given time, those assessments will reflect something different, but it won’t reflect it tomorrow.”

Some may wait for that change, but others are willing to jump in now.

“I think you’re going to start getting a lot of parental involvement in the school, and that’s going to bring the scores up,” Timek said. “I don’t know how much it’s going to bring them up, but that should help.”