The Washburn way, under scrutiny

TANGLETOWN — Honors for all was a cornerstone of Principal Carol Markham-Cousins’ largely successful campaign to win back neighborhood families and turn around a lagging Washburn High School.

But ever since a parent’s letter to the School Board in February equated honors for all with “one size fits all,” the practice of having all Washburn ninth- and 10th-grade students take the same core courses — instead of offering different courses for different ability levels — has been a topic of intense community debate. Now, district officials are responding by promising to take a closer look at the effectiveness of honors for all and to develop more rigorous standards for coursework in all seven district high schools.

Announcing the review at an April 20 School Board meeting, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson put it in terms of “quality control.”

“With this issue that was brought up at Washburn, what we realize is that an honors class at one school, it’s not the same as an honors class at another school,” Johnson said.

A week later, Markham-Cousins learned the Washburn would receive the support it needs to implement the International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Programme, an expansion of the highly regarded curriculum already offered for Washburn’s upper grades to grades 9 and 10. But that doesn’t mean honors for all is going away next year, and Markham-Cousins said she remained committed to an educational philosophy that emphasizes equity and the “common good.”

“This isn’t an idea that I pulled out of my head,” she said. “It was really looking at creating a school that had a focus, a real clear focus, on academic success for all kids. That doesn’t equate that it’s going to be pulling down some kids to have some kids come up.”

Different students, different needs

While other parents have spoken out on both sides of the issue, it was Kip Wennerlund’s letter to the School Board that framed the current debate over honors for all. In it, Wennerlund argued high-achieving students like his daughter, a freshman, weren’t challenged enough in the lower grades, and that some older students experienced a kind of academic whiplash when they encountered tougher IB coursework as juniors.

At the same time, he continued, struggling students were outpaced by honors for all classes, and teachers faced the very difficult task of tailoring instruction for a wide range of student abilities. That “makes learning and teaching more difficult than it has to be,” he said.

Honors for all tests the abilities of Washburn teachers to regularly assess and respond to the needs of individual students, and Markham-Cousins does not deny it. But she argued those skills are at the very core of the profession.

“It’s very difficult and it’s messy, but it’s the way teaching has been, always,” she said.

This winter, Melanie Crawford, head of the district’s gifted and talented program, began work with a group of Washburn teachers who will examine how school staff differentiates classroom instruction for both low- and high-achieving students, Markham-Cousins added.

Emily Puetz, the district’s chief academic officer, said there were “tangible benefits” when students of different ability levels worked side-by-side in the same classroom. Still, Puetz planned to lead an assessment of honors for all she said would measure “the degree to which that is really supporting students in their learning.”

The results of the assessment could impact course offerings, but not until the 2013–2014 school year, she said.

That’s too late for Wennerlund. Although he has two younger children in Minneapolis schools and plans to remain involved in the district, he said in May his oldest daughter would likely attend another high school next fall.

Seeking standards

Hanging over the Washburn debate is the School Board’s 2009 vote to approve Changing School Options, a district reorganization that cut back transportation offerings. With fewer opportunities to bus across the city, incoming high school students generally attend the schools closest to their homes.

Said School Board Member Jill Davis: “My biggest concern when we voted for (transportation) zones was actually the equity issue, because there has been a longstanding issue of coursework differences across the city.”

While district leaders aren’t planning to create seven identical high schools, Puetz and her team are creating a “common course catalog” that will standardize offerings across the district.

“There is not a consistent definition of what constitutes ‘honors’ across the system,” she said, adding that, in conversations with principals, the difference between honors-level courses and their standard-level counterparts was “pretty grey.”

Puetz said the district was developing “learning targets” for each core high school course, a set of easy-to-understand objectives for student learning. They are a distillation of the state standards for each subject and the district’s goals for student achievement.

“They’re written in very simple ‘I can’ statements, so a student could articulate what he or she is learning,” she explained.

Puetz said learning targets would be developed for all ninth grade classes for next fall, along with similar guides for kindergarten, third- and sixth-grade courses. Additional grades will get course guides in 2013 and beyond.

A changing community

A common course catalog would reassure parents like Annie Christman, a Washburn graduate who now has two children at the school.

“All these high schools should be on the same page, so we don’t have these haves and have-nots,” Christman said.

She said the transition from sophomore to junior year was “definitely a step up” for her son, but not too different from her own Washburn experience of three decades earlier.

Washburn has been “wonderful” for her family, said Christman, who added both her son and daughter considered other district high schools before choosing the place they felt most “comfortable.”

“That’s what its about, exposure to different things and different people, and feeling good about where they are,” she said.

Still, Christman said the debate over honors for all was “a good discussion to have,” and both she and Davis made the same suggestion: As Markham-Cousins has succeeded in rebuilding Washburn’s reputation for academics, she’s drawn families that increasingly demand evidence of true rigor in the classroom.

“What are the needs of the student body?” Davis asked. “I think it’s probably different from three years ago.”