Superintendent Speaks Out In Washburn Honors Classes Controversy
At Tuesday's school board meeting, Bernadeia Johnson pledged "to support students(...)who need acceleration."
In between the pleading and declamations over the teachers' contract during Tuesday night's school board meeting, a little piece of news slipped out of Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson's mouth, seemingly unnoticed.
"I'm pledging we will provide support for students to take (non-honors) courses," Johnson said after the school board had voted on the contracts. "And students who need acceleration, we need to work individually with those families to identify opportunities for those students."
Washburn High School parents have been waiting on tenterhooks to see how the district would respond to their peers' demands for more challenging classes. The school currently groups students of different ability levels in the same class in a system called "honors for all."
For now, Johnson said there will be no changes to the school's 2012-2013 course offerings, as next year's course catalogue has already been published. Beyond her promise to challenge all students regardless of academic skill, though, Johnson avoided committing to any specific course for Washburn's academic future.
"We realized that an honors class at one school is not the same as an honors class at another school," she said. "We have to look into the issue and address it post-haste in a way that's very intentional."
Still, Johnson expressed deep skepticism of course structures where students were grouped by ability, referring to her own experience growing up in segregated schools in Selma, Alabama. White students there were grouped into the more challenging classes, she said, because of where they lived in the city.
It's a situation with clear parallels to Minneapolis—school enrollment is determined by your address, and many neighborhoods are very racially and economically segregated.
Emily Puetz, the district's Chief Academic Officer, later denied that Johnson was telegraphing her rejection of separate honors classes. In segregated schools like Selma, Puetz said, students of color got "stuck" in less challenging tracks and were never given opportunities to move upward.
Puetz said she could imagine a possible solution where schools made a concerted effort to push kids into more challenging classes if they could handle it. Puetz added that she was agnostic about whether Washburn should continue its "honors for all" program or start offering separate, accelerated classes.
As part of the district's push to rationalize core curriculum across all schools, Johnson said the district was "working on bringing accountability to the courses offered" next school year.