High School reform on the horizon

Changes could reroute students entering high schools by next year

With the beginning of the new school year, hundreds of ninth-graders in the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) district are taking the exciting but daunting step of beginning their high school careers. Their biggest worries are likely about making friends, wearing the right clothes and not getting lost in the hallways.

Parents and administrators have bigger concerns, however, because the Minneapolis school district is in the middle of a major high school reform process that will significantly change the way that students are assigned to high schools. Recommendations are expected this fall, and the changes will go into effect by the time this year’s eighth-graders apply to high schools for the 2008–2009 school year.

According to Craig Vana, associate superintendent for high schools and alternative sites for MPS, the current reform process became necessary when the district learned its system for admitting students to high schools was out of compliance with federal guidelines.

The problem lies with the 23 small learning communities, or SLCs, that make up the programming at the seven Minneapolis high schools: Edison, Henry, North, Roosevelt, South, Southwest and Washburn. An SLC is designed to be a school within a school, offering students the chance to take courses from a specific team of teachers with a particular educational focus.

Examples of SLCs include the cosmetology program at Edison, the international baccalaureate (IB) program at Henry, the open program at South and the arts and humanities program at Southwest.

The goal is for students to be part of a smaller community, where they will receive more individual attention and support, rather than becoming lost in a large and impersonal high school setting. Every student has an SLC designation; incoming students apply to an SLC at a high school, not to the high school in general.

The problem is that in the past, each SLC was allowed to have admission requirements, such as grade point averages and attendance rates. In fall 2006, federal officials informed the district that these requirements put the district out of compliance with the terms of the federal grant that helps fund the SLCs, which amounts to approximately one million dollars a year.

The McKnight Foundation, which provides approximately $400,000 in SLC grant money annually to the district, also pointed out wide disparities in the quality of SLCs offered, strongly recommending that the district focus on providing more equitable programming and more rigorous academic offerings throughout the city.

Vana said the unintended effect of the SLC entrance requirements has been to segregate students. “The entrance criteria limited access to SLCs,” he said. “Our own data showed that we were segregating a number of ethnic groups.”

Without entrance requirements, and without a system of community schools where students in a specific area are automatically assigned to the closest school, the district needs to come up with a new process for assigning students to SLC programs. According to Vana, the new process will take several factors into consideration, the first being “academic pathways,” which refers to the type of K–8 school or middle school from which the students are coming.

For example, the district would consider the South Open program to be a pathway for students coming from Marcy Open. Not all K-8 and middle school programs have pathways that clearly lead to an SLC, however. Community schools — like Folwell Middle School, for example — don’t have a specific academic focus, and some magnet schools — such as Seward Montessori — don’t lead to a specific SLC. Vana said an emphasis on pathways would mean that parents of younger students should think about their high school plans when selecting an elementary school for their children. “We need to help parents with that piece,” he said.

In addition to pathways, the district will consider more clear-cut criteria, such as what attendance area a student lives in and whether the student already has a sibling attending a specific school. A reliance on attendance areas, however, might make some parents nervous, because Minneapolis has had an open enrollment policy in recent years, with 18 out of the 23 SLCs accepting students from across the city. Many families from Northeast Minneapolis, for example, currently send their children to the South Liberal Arts or Open programs, though they are technically in the Edison attendance area.

Before working out the specific details of the new admissions process — including the number of students admitted to each SLC — Vana said district officials are waiting to see what recommendations emerge from the district’s current strategic planning process, which is being led by McKinsey & Co., an independent consultant. Vana said he expects that high school reform will be one of the main issues addressed, and the recommendations are expected to be presented to the school board for approval in October or November.

Vana did say, however, that the public should expect a greater emphasis on equity and academic rigor in SLCs across the city. Although there will no longer be entrance requirements, there will be expectations for staying in a specific program. “We’re not going to water down IB or pre-engineering,” he said. “The idea is to provide the educational rigor in every SLC so that every student, if they choose, can go on to postsecondary education.”

That said, Vana emphasized that the public schools need to educate all children, regardless of their academic skills or performance. “The reality is that these are public schools, so we have to work with every kid,” he said. “But if a student isn’t meeting expectations in a specific SLC, there are people who can help him or her to make another choice.” What there won’t be, he said, is “a basket-weaving option so students can just slide through.”

The district is also working on expanding programs popular at one school to other high school sites. There has been talk, for example, of expanding IB to Washburn and offering more advanced placement (AP) classes at North and Edison. The ultimate goal, said Vana, “is for every school to provide an equitable and excellent world-class education for every kid.”

For more information about the district’s strategic planning process, see the article on that topic in the August issue of The Bridge or online at www.readthebridge.info/node/2156.

last revised: September 7, 2007