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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 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 . 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 , 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 next school year. 

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julie durand April 20, 2012 at 05:42 PM
This makes it sound like they are doing nothing about the improving the course offerings at Washburn. "... work individually with those families to identify opportunities for those students" is not a solution, it's a patch and doesn't address the issue that Washburn is not on par with other schools that offer accelerated learning. Offering up sound bytes like "working on bringing accountability to the courses offered" is not getting us anywhere. Doesn't the district want Washburn to succeed?
Jesse Lykken April 20, 2012 at 06:55 PM
"Already published"? Well, OF COURSE we cannot possibly offer honors courses to our children next year if the catalogues are already published! That sounds like an insurmountable obstacle! Johnson has to go. She is way over her head, and has been so from the beginning. She needs to go now!
James Sanna (Editor) April 20, 2012 at 08:08 PM
Hold on a minute, though. MPS is running on razor-thin budget margins, though. The added days next school year are having to be paid by non-classroom cuts, not extra money that's just lying around. Not arguing for or against the validity of Johnson's reasoning, but money worries are part of the mix, too.

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