Kip Wennerlund is not a happy man.
When he looks at his ninth-grade daughter’s classes at , he sees a school that’s not challenging her or her classmates, threatening to push away the very parents that are just starting to return to the district from private schools or open enrollment programs at suburban public schools.
Frustrated with pushback from the principal and district officials, Wennerlund sent an open letter to Minneapolis school board members, and the letter was quickly forwarded among high school and middle school parents.
The problem, in Wennerlund’s eyes, revolves around Washburn’s classroom structure, called Honors for All. In ninth and 10th grade, most students are grouped by academic subject, without much separation by ability. Instead, teachers are asked to do that separation within each classroom—the advanced kids get additional material to explore, freeing the teacher to devote more time to helping students who need remedial work.
“The intent of Honors for All was to ensure a rigorous learning experience for all students,” said Emily Puetz, the district’s Chief Academic Officer. “There’s an argument to be made that Minneapolis schools have held kids to different standards (based on academic ability) in the past.”
The problem, of course, comes when too many ability levels are packed into one classroom, throwing a teacher off-balance.
“Differentiated instruction is really hard,” said school board member Rebecca Gagnon. ”If you’ve got kids who haven’t passed algebra in the same class with people who’ve already passed geometry, it’s impossible to give each student the individual attention they each need to stay challenged.”
Still, Washburn is no academic desert. Under Principal Carol Markham-Cousins, the school has made big strides towards lifting its low-performing students. Students looking for acceleration have access to online classes and, if they can prove they know the material, can get bumped up a year.
In Wennerlund’s opinion, though, it’s a “less-than-ideal solution,” particularly for students who aren’t advanced enough to jump a grade but who are bored with the pace of their current class.
“Online learning might appeal to kid who’s a tremendous self-starter and a go-getter,” Wennerlund told Patch. “In my experience, students tend not to take (in-class special projects) and run with it. They do much better when all their classmates are egging each other on to do better.”
Gagnon and Puetz the district has spent recent months building preliminary solutions, with plans to roll them out this fall.
Washburn and other schools will start experimenting with teachers who jump between high schools, giving some groups of students equal mixes of in-person and online or live-streamed class time. For students who come to high school several grades behind, the district is looking at offering catch-up classes or other interventions to make sure they’re on track to graduate with the knowledge they need.
“Any kind of organizational changes take a long time. You need to build buy-in," Puetz said. “After the first year, we’ll have a much better idea of what’s possible.”