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Washburn Parent: Child Lacking A Challenging Education

District officials say they have plans to lift up lower-performing students.

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.”

David Brauer February 28, 2012 at 04:46 PM
We've enjoying being at Washburn. My son - who is in Kip's daughter's math class - says math is the only one where "kids of all grade levels" is an issue. It is unfortunate that he has to take 2 years of math (online Geometry + in-school Algebra II) to be fully challenged. However, I would tell prospective Washburn parents that the school is well-aware now that tons of able math kids are coming from Anthony, etc., and in my conversations with the district, I'm confident the system will be reworked. Carol is a dogged fighter for the kids who you see less frequently at some Southwest elementaries, and I've seen her stumble at PR, but I think she gets it about this. Our experience is she's not going to just tell you what you want to hear, but our son is happy with the learning environment, the leadership opportunities, and feels appropriately challenged and engaged. He still grumbles about online math, but I'm reasonably sure next year's 9th graders won't face that problem
charles spolyar February 28, 2012 at 05:54 PM
To me it seems that the Washburn approach is great for the administration - but not for the students, or the teachers. For the students there is an inequality between what Southwest and South are offering and what Washburn's has available. If it's true that the Principal is telling some prospective parents to look elsewhere will she help those families get into Southwest? For the teachers the differentiated approach required is not only difficult, it can't be a lot of fun and adds a lot of unnecessary stress.
Paul Forsline February 28, 2012 at 08:25 PM
MPS administrators directing parents to open enroll is a PR face plant! Prospective parents with basic academic questions have been told to open enroll to other districts. Minneapolis can not lose students & families to other districts. I would hope all MPS administrators are advocates for all Minneapolis students and communities. I have 3 children with different academic needs. I hope MPS would allow an open dialogue that does not end with "you can open enroll". Mr. Wennerlund has asked hard, thoughtful questions, and his intent is to improve Washburn for all students. I am looking forward to my students Washburn years, but MPS please stop telling my neighbors to open enroll to Edina.
Dean Carlson February 28, 2012 at 09:37 PM
My son is a Jr. at Holy Angels but has around 5 friends going to Washburn. His friends are amazed at the amount of work my son has to do and they say that basically they are "babysat" (their words) at Washburn. My son even asked the his high school counselor if Colleges knew the Washburn education wasn't as rigorous and if colleges made acceptance decisions when comparing a Holy Angels kid v. a Washburn kid. This is information he's getting from his Washburn-attending friends mind you. Speaks volume of what a group of junior boys think.
Tim February 29, 2012 at 01:53 AM
From our families experience WHS has been a wonderful place. My son is graduating with the current class and has thrived all four years socially, academically and athletically. He was one of a very few who chose WHS over SW four years ago and I have never been sorry he did. I emphasize this because it was his choice. So many parents helicopter over every aspect of their children’s life as if this choice or that choice is the one that is going to keep them from reaching their full potential in life. It seems we are raising a group of passive aggressive young people that are unsure what to do next without daddies or mommies guidance or intervention at every turn. Yes WHS has some rough spots and something's that really gifted students may have to overcome to be on par with other school choices but part of growing and maturing is understanding that all of life is not necessarily a perfectly planned play date supervised by our parents some of it involves free play where we have to overcome obstacles on our own. WHS has provided my son with the academics and life skills to succeed at any of the four colleges he has chosen.
Rae February 29, 2012 at 03:25 AM
Telling students to leave the Mpls schools is not going to strengthen the schools at all. My daughter started at southwest, then switched to WHS for exact opposite reasons of what is being stated. Southwest did not challenge her any more, only gave her more "busy work" instead of actually teaching. She has been sufficiently challenged (for the most part) at WHS and has taken steps to change classes and talk to her counselor when needed. Her experience has also showed us that it gets better after freshman year, in terms of ranging difficulties in classes. If you ask, and make your case clear, then they should be able to help you get the challenge you need. If you just sit there and hope someone notices you need a bigger challenge then that's not enough.
Anonymous February 29, 2012 at 03:46 AM
As a senior at Washburn, I've enjoyed my four years there greatly. Granted, I do think my freshman year wasn't as challenging as it could've been, I under no circumstances believe I received a "dumbed-down" education. And once I started taking IB courses my junior year, I was immediately challenged with the course rigor and difficulty. While yes, my freshman year did lack rigor to an extent, I think that's to be expected. As my time there progressed so did the course loads and difficulty. Sometimes I think parents forget that it's not always about how much homework your kid has, it's about what they're learning in the classroom and how it's being taught to them. They could have hours of homework but for all you know it could be busy work, or they might not even be absorbing it at all. I didn't have much homework freshman year but that doesn't mean I wasn't challenged, that didn't mean I wasn't learning. Until you can personally experience what's being taught in the classrooms as well as how it's being taught, I believe it's very hard to judge how difficult a course is. Washburn is staffed with a phenomenal group of teachers, and I have always felt supported by them and the rest of the administration throughout my four years. I fully believe my education at Washburn has both challenged me over the last four years as well as prepared me for college next fall. And while that's just my own experience, I'm confident I'm not the only student from Washburn who would agree with it.
Michael and Kristi Oscarson February 29, 2012 at 05:26 AM
We feel a need to weigh in and offer our two cents, based on our family's experience at WHS. Our son is a senior at WHS, and his OVERALL experience has been extremely positive. He has had many amazing teachers and has been challenged throughout each of his four years. When asked, he was hard-pressed to recall any situations where teachers were "babysitting." He did choose to take a few PSEO classes at the U of M, to supplement areas where he wanted/needed something different than what was offered. However, that only added to his overall experience, and the tuition (college credit) was free! He applied to five highly regarded schools and was accepted at each of them. We feel very confident that his educational experience at WHS has fully prepared him to succeed at whichever one he chooses. We feel that WHS has so many strengths: the Arts program, diversity, opportunity for involvement and/or leadership in a variety of areas, Project Lead the Way, etc. But the most important thing is that he REALLY likes it. And we've always felt that at WHS, students seem very comfortable just being their own unique, individual selves. Are there things that will require continued improvement at WHS? Absolutely. Could the administration be more open and receptive to feedback and ideas regarding continued improvement? Absolutely! Given all of the area's high school options, both public and private, could we have hoped for a better OVERALL experience for our son? Absolutely not!
Kip Wennerlund February 29, 2012 at 01:30 PM
For what it's worth, I never used the adjective "dumbed-down," as both the article headline and the home page link implied. This was a characterization of the headline writer. In response, Mr. Sanna changed the article headline. However, at present, the home-page link remains unchanged. I'll repeat here what I wrote in response to Mr. Sanna: I have been very careful to describe the academic environment as one characterized by a lack of challenge, or a lack of rigor. I would never use the adjective "dumbed-down," both because that seems even harsher than the situation I have been describing, and because the word "dumb" would needlessly agitate and alienate Washburn families and teachers. Even people who are dissatisfied with aspects of Washburn will tend to be offended when their school is described as "dumbed-down." Perhaps this seems like splitting hairs to you, and that in your view "dumbed-down" captures my description anyway. But if you do see a distinction there, could you please get it changed to something less pithy but more in line with the words I used?
jean Olin March 01, 2012 at 02:46 AM
Ninth grade is a difficult time for both teachers and administrators. The kids come from different schools and abilities. One thing at Washburn the student body is made up of a lot of different people like will be found in the real world. My granddaughter who was in IB at Southwest found that she had extra projects to do that took up a lot of her extra time to do other things. My grandson chose to go to Washburn. He felt it was a better fit. He is a junior and has liked his classes. One of his friends got a high grade on the SAT, so she must have learned something. Schools, teachers and administrators need all the support they can get. Mr. Wennerlund, how many classes at Washburn have you visited? Ninth grade is a time to see how well the student knows his basic math skills to enable him to do "rigorous" math.
Kathy Cima March 01, 2012 at 04:13 AM
Why does one parent's concerns even make a news story? I would hope that before going to press the paper had tried to interview the majority of parents that are really happy with the school. Even the parents with particularly intelligent children Just because he wore a letter does not make him an authority. Not newsworthy and not balanced Or try interviewing the kids who are thriving there. There are always parents in these days of the helicopter parents that will complain about their children's curriculum. That is not news. I'd cancel my subscription. But it just shows up on my door.
Chris March 01, 2012 at 02:57 PM
I am a parent of a Senior at WHS and have to add something to this discussion. I find myself echoing the sentiments of the Oscarsons when thinking about our experiences at Washburn. Has it been perfect? No. Is there room for improvement? Yes. Would my daughter give up her 4 year experience to go to another Mpls high school? Absolutely not! My daughter did not choose Washburn. In fact, she did not put Washburn down as one of her 4 choices at all. When she got over the tears she decided that she wanted to give it a chance and we have had no regrets. She has also applied to several highly regarded colleges and has been accepted to all...with money to boot. She is happy...socially and academically. I respect Kip's opinions-I really do. What I have a problem with is the claim that this is really about a one-size fits-all problem. To me, it seems like this choice (Washburn) does not fit one and broadcasting it to the world does nothing to help make the situation better. He has basically put a red light on the building saying "Don't come here!" His letter is well crafted and has already caused panic for some parents who have chosen Washburn and are now thinking they have doomed their child's high school career. It is just not so.. Our next child has chosen WHS for their high school. Amazingly, we are no longer in Washburn's home school zone (but, we are in the walk zone?) so he is not assured a spot there! If he does get a spot, we are sure he will thrive!!
amy moeller March 01, 2012 at 03:58 PM
My son is a 10th grader at W'burn. He too, chose to go there even though he had other choices. I agree with Tim, we need to let our kids buy into and own these big decisions. ANY school is going to have good and bad, that seems obvious. With that said, we LOVE Washburn. My son is involved in sports and the arts. His teachers give him time in class to complete work so he is not over loaded with homework. He is an A student. I am happy he is not doing 3 hours of homework per night that leaves no time for the church activities, plays, choir and sports he is involved with. In addition, it is my opinion as a professional working with teens, this kind of rigor causes a great amount of stress and anxiety in our teens today. This type of rigor is meant for college, not for high school. If they spend all thier time studying, hours per night and weekends, they have lost those high school years that they will never get back. If you are college bound, you will do just fine coming out of W'burn. I have seen many kids get into fine colleges. Let's not forget either that you "get out of it, what you put into it." We can not lay our children's entire education on the teachers. The kids need to take some repsonsibilty and so do we as parents. We can't just sit back and expect the teachers to do it all. I e-mail with my son's teachers and the ALWAYS get right back to me. They set up extra time for him during off school hours if he needs it.Most importanly..HE LOVES WASHBURN in evey way.
Minneapolis Parent March 01, 2012 at 11:46 PM
Why this story matters - Part 1 1. It exposes the philosophy of Washburn H.S. & MPS in which advanced students aren’t offered more challenging courses – as policy. This is at odds with the policies in the surrounding districts (including Edina, Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, and Eagan), which offer a variety of options (e.g., honors, gifted, A.P., etc). (It is appalling that MPS’s solution for the most advanced students “online instruction” and a part-time teacher.)
Minneapolis Parent March 01, 2012 at 11:52 PM
Why this story matters – part 2 2. Because the percentage of Washburn students classified as making “low growth” by the Minnesota Department of Education is alarmingly high, and way worse than high schools in the surrounding areas. The most recent data (from the Minnesota Department of Education; see below for details*) revealed that 46% of Washburn 11th grade students (classified as proficient) made “low growth” in math over the prior year, compared to 24% at Southwest, 11% at Edina, and 21% at St. Paul Highland. (The pattern is similar for reading). Also astounding is that 34% of non-proficient students at Washburn are classified as having made low growth—which is also way higher than other schools. Perhaps “helicopter” parents like Mr. Wennerlund correctly perceive that the education their children are receiving is markedly inferior to what is offered by neighboring high schools. *Source: https://education.state.mn.us/MDEAnalytics/Data.jsp (choose “growth” for test name and 2010 for year). "The Minnesota Growth model was designed with input from parents and educators to determine if students are gaining and maintaining skills necessary to be academically successful. Growth towards that goal is classified as low, medium, or high. For each student in the state, scores from last year are compared to the current year"
Minneapolis Parent March 01, 2012 at 11:55 PM
Why this story matters - part 3 3. Bear in mind that only 40% of all students enrolled in college graduate in 4 years (U.S. News, Feb 29). It is therefore reasonable for parents to make sure that their children’s high school experience is rigorous—and certainly not inferior to nearby high schools. Getting into college is not the whole story-- one has to have the skills and preparation to succeed.
Minneapolis Parent March 01, 2012 at 11:55 PM
Why this story matters - part 3 3. Bear in mind that only 40% of all students enrolled in college graduate in 4 years (U.S. News, Feb 29). It is therefore reasonable for parents to make sure that their children’s high school experience is rigorous—and certainly not inferior to nearby high schools. Getting into college is not the whole story-- one has to have the skills and preparation to succeed.
Southwest Dad March 02, 2012 at 12:44 AM
"Honors for All" seems like "Honors for No One". While I can certainly appreciate that the additional free time is nice for both parents and students, we live in an increasingly competitive global marketplace where rigorous education options should be offered to students who need and want a more challenging curriculum. At the same time, we need to make sure that students who are behind a grade level or more get the focused resources they need to advance. Meeting both of these goals by placing such academically diverse students in the same classroom for all subjects seems a stretch.
Minneapolis Parent March 02, 2012 at 01:37 PM
The headline should have been, "MPS Principal and Administrators Implement Radical Curriculum Experiment at Washburn High School." This is a not a story about Kip Wennerlund’s child or helicopter parenting. It is a policy story about how Markham Cousins—backed by MPS--has implemented an ideologically-driven curriculum at a neighborhood school, which deprives students of the choice of courses that are routinely offered at every other high school in the neighboring districts (as well as South and Southwest), and then tells parents and students that if they don’t like it they can leave. Parent feedback and teacher feedback is imperiously dismissed by Markham Cousins. Until now, there has been no public debate on this subject, which involves the public schools—a social good that belongs to all of us and that we pay for through our taxes. This is not a story about the quality of the teachers at Washburn, who appear to be terrific. It is about depriving students of the ability to take at least some advanced, accelerated, and honors courses—if they so choose. As someone who lives in the Washburn district and has children in the MPS school system and has many friends who send their kids there, I can assure you that Mr. Wennerlund’s misgivings about Markham Cousins are shared by many, even if they won’t voice their opinions as vocally as he has.
ROK March 03, 2012 at 05:29 AM
MPS statement that “There’s an argument to be made that Minneapolis schools have held kids to different standards (based on academic ability) in the past.” is a gem. No kidding, and shouldn't they? I salute MPS for wanting every child to be college ready. However based on their academic ability, college for some of those kids is going to be community college; for others the U of MN and for others, Yale. I would hope that by the time kids get to high school there would be a recognition that different kids have different academic abilities and should be grouped accordingly. Everyone should be given the opportunity to get a good basic college preparatory education (and there is nothing to be ashamed of in a good vo-tech diploma for that matter). Beyond that, admissions to an Honors program should be for the highest achieving, most intelligent students. To those who disagree, go and find yourself a really experienced high school teacher and ask him or her what it is like to teach a class of twenty to thirty Ivy League bound braniacs versus a class of average to below average ability. It is different and we are doing our best and brightest a disservice for not recognizing this.
Minneapolis Parent March 07, 2012 at 05:58 PM
I am confused as to why at least two of you think that Washburn ( and other Mpls high schools ) don't offer advanced classes???? Washburn has IB, PSEO, AP classes ...... students who want or think they "need" these classes are free to take them. If these are not advanced courses ( many college level) then I do not know what would be considered advanced.
charles spolyar March 07, 2012 at 08:09 PM
I looked on the websites for Southwest and for Washburn and looked up what classes they offer in Math. (see below) You can see that SW offers not only the IB, but also AP and Honors. Washburn has only the IB for grades 11 and 12. No other options for grades 9 and 10. From looking at this is does appear that Southwest if offering a substantially different product that Washburn is offering. Southwest Math Classes: Advanced Algebra Algebra 1 – Retake Algebra/Geometry/Statistics AP Calculus/IB HL1 Mathematics AP Statistics Geometry Honors Advanced Algebra with PreCalculus Honors Geometry IB HL2 Mathematics IB Math Studies SL (IB Testing) IB SL1 Mathematics / IB SL2 Mathematics (IB Testing) Intermediate Algebra Intermediate Algebra Support Washburn Math Classes: ALGEBRA 1 ALGEBRA 2 GEOMETRY IB SL MATH IB SL MATH STUDIES IMP 2/3
Anonymous March 08, 2012 at 03:57 AM
That may be true but let's not forget Southwest wasn't fresh started just a few years ago, and they have also had those programs up and running for decades. Washburn has just recently acquired the IB program and is still in the process of determining what other courses will help benefit it's new, larger flow of students. Southwest also hasn't had to deal with nearly as many issues as Washburn has over years.
charles spolyar March 08, 2012 at 04:32 PM
Anon - I completely understand about Washburn's fresh start and Southwest's history. But now that Washburn has it's first class of the "fresh starters" graduating this year the expectations are raised that the two schools will have more similarities in their offerings. Not to speak for him, but I think that was a big part of Kipp's letter, that the schools are not equal in what they offer and the administration does not seem to be taking that concern as seriously as it should.
Anon March 09, 2012 at 01:09 AM
Look again, the website might be wrong, but the course offerings (that students received today) listed the following math classes: Intermediate Algebra Geometry Advanced Algebra AP Statistics College Prep Algebra/Stat IB SL Math Studies IB SL Math year 1 IB SL Math year 2 IB HL Math year 1 (year 2 will be offered next year) And, fyi, many students are too challenged in the IB SL Math class and have opted out of it on their parents' suggestions (yes, we're talking about the "elite" neighborhood students)
Southwest parent March 09, 2012 at 01:59 AM
The principal at Washburn purposely does not want to offer different classes for different abilities as a matter of "policy." It is not aboutI the time it takes to develop a curriculum like Southwest.....rather it is about the time it takes to develop a unique curriculum that is not at all like Southwest. Markham Cousins does not want another Southwest and anyone who thinks the school is heading in that direction is fooling themselves.
charles spolyar March 15, 2012 at 07:35 PM
Two weeks later... the Strib is now on the story!
charles spolyar March 15, 2012 at 07:42 PM
Anon - thanks for the heads up on the Course Catalog.It's good they have one new math opportunity. English, not so much. I find it pretty funny that on the cover there is a really big "ONE" !
Tory James March 16, 2012 at 03:50 PM
I don't believe the "Honors For All" courses are true honors courses. I believe Markham-Cousins names the 9th & 10th grade courses to get the buy-in from the students taking these courses. Isn't it true if you make students believe he/she is smart by taking "honors" courses, they will try harder as a result? After all, they are taking "honor" classes.
Megan Bartell March 27, 2012 at 11:49 PM
I agree with you 100% Amy. Thanks for your comments.

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