Dissonance in a District Divided

On Saturday, the Duluth News Tribune’s Jana Hollingsworth wrote the paper’s best piece about ISD 709 in my memory. It was thorough, powerful, and on the depressing side. As usual, this is one of the few things that drives me up on to a soapbox. Here I go.

The article is primarily about the struggles of ISD 709’s music programs, which have taken a big hit in recent years. The number of music educators in the district has been halved since my graduation just six years ago, to say nothing of the private and small-group lessons that were already in decline. I wrote about this a little bit after the school board meeting two months ago (see the notes after the stars toward the end): a six-period middle school day makes for some ugly choices by students, and music is the natural victim. The suggestion in a letter by Superintendent Gronseth to parents that students don’t really need to study a foreign language in eighth grade, while true to the extent that it corrects a false rumor, would irk me if I were a parent. Shut up and eat your broccoli, kids!

What makes this article impressive, though, is that it digs a bit deeper, and acknowledges that elephant in the room that no one likes to talk about: Duluth’s east-west divide. Duluth is a split city; the new two high school set-up may make that distinction more obvious, but wasn’t any less real before the Red Plan. We have an east side that is home to the financial and intellectual elite of northeastern Minnesota, and while not everyone in the East attendance area is a cakeater, the ancillary benefits of wealth and stable neighborhoods can make all the difference in the world. The east side has the cultural capital to withstand budget crises and large class sizes, and its involved parents will fight hard to make sure the money keeps flowing into the coffers. Meanwhile, we have a west side that has a shrinking student population, more than double the number of kids on free and reduced lunch, and—perhaps most damagingly—a “far more transient” population. How can a District ever make real progress when kids are here one year and gone the next?

Sure, there are bureaucratic ways of getting around this, but it’s tough, given Duluth’s geography. Something like one half of the student-aged population now lives east of 21st Avenue. Elaborate line-drawing and busing schemes are an option, but as we reflect on the 60 years since Brown v. Board, we’ve learned that, however noble the intent, busing alone cannot correct the inequities in a city, and in general has simply proven another catalyst for white flight to the suburbs. Duluth’s dynamics in this regard are far less racial, but there’s no reason not to think that a number of those with the means to do so wouldn’t follow the incentives and create their own solutions if their children are forced into the “weaker” school in a search for equity. Like it or not, reality demands that Duluth confront the incentives that exist in the current system. No PR operation is going to change them. The solutions here are primarily in the realm of economics and urban planning, not school buses.

I’ve said this numerous times when talking about this divide, and I’ll stress it again here: the west side of Duluth is no ghetto. It has some quality neighborhoods and a strong sense of identity. It’s not beyond repair, and some people on the west side would take issue with the suggestion that it even needs repair. To the extent that it does, much of it is beyond the purview of a school district. It can’t give parents jobs or repair broken families or generate homeownership, and educational struggles will probably forever follow issues such as those. It makes no sense to force students district-wide into the same box and expect the same outcomes. Solutions must work with the reality on the ground.

ISD 709 has, quietly, acknowledged this. From the singular focus on math and reading at Laura Macarthur to the intensive programs at Lincoln Park detailed in this latest article, the District has put extra emphasis on basic skills. This is in many regards a practical decision, both in the need to raise test scores for funding purposes and in the need to have kids who can function at reasonable levels. Obviously, this isn’t without its trade-offs, sometimes potentially very negative ones. The most familiar is mentioned by Member Seliga-Punyko: things like music, athletics, and elective classes give kids reasons to be excited about school, and want to be there. If they don’t get this stuff early in their lives, is there any reason to expect they ever will?

There is another danger, here, though, something underscored even further by the recent elimination of Spanish 5 at Denfeld: there needs to be a track for the high-achieving kids on the west side to keep up with their peers on the east. The benefits are manifold: it sets a high bar that can give students a reason to strive in school. Those high-achieving students, many of them from stable families with deep roots in the area, are the glue that holds these schools together, and the foundation necessary for any broader scheme to rebuild that side of the city after thirty years of industrial decline. If options for those students get squeezed out, odds are they’re going to leave, and that only worsens the trickle-down effect. The west side’s test scores drop further, more resources get shipped out there to prop them up, and in time the east side starts to feel the strain, too, and suddenly we’re all going down the drain together. If that means devoting some extra resources to the west side to prop up certain options, as Clare Chopp suggests, then this kid who bleeds red and grey says “make it happen.”

This isn’t a big city. ISD 709 can’t just close low-performing schools left and right as in large urban districts, especially not in the wake of the Red Plan. (Though even that isn’t guaranteed to work; see this striking piece on school reform in Newark in last week’s New Yorker.) For all their differences, the east and west sides are intricately interconnected. It is not the job of school districts to make war on geography, and while they can be a source of social change—and probably should be, to the extent that they can—it’s delusional to think schools can do it alone, or even that they are the primary factor. Instead, the District has to work with what it has. There is only so much the schools can control, and I certainly have plenty of sympathy for the School Board members and principals as they make painful decisions on what must be cut. In the end, it all comes back to incentives: a few gentle pushes can make sure students have all of the opportunities they deserve.

To that end, here’s one idea: actively pressure kids to take tougher classes so that they can generate the numbers necessary to sustain them. Much too big of a deal is made out of the AP label in ISD 709. Just about anywhere else in the country, AP is a relative commonplace. If inner-city schools can cram a host of poorly-prepared students through the AP curriculum every year—as many do—Duluth most definitely can come up with a single class of AP World History students at Denfeld. Even a half-assed AP class that doesn’t quite teach to the test is better than a “regular” course (though it should, of course, aim for the top—push the kids, and who knows what might happen).

I understand that AP is not the be-all, end-all, and six years removed, I can see what a rat race the fight for a good high school résumé was. However, this is not something you lessen by lecturing from on high on what one needs to take to go to college, nor by lopping off options and saying “eh, you’ll turn out alright in the end.” AP is not for everyone, just as college is not for everyone, and there is no shame in finding stable employment in, say, a trade profession. (To ISD 709’s credit, its programs in this department are strong, and it should be commended for standing by them, despite this not doing much for those all-important test scores.) CITS covers most of what kids need for local colleges and can even ready kids for AP tests adequately with just some minor tweaks, and I’m naturally bit skeptical of blanket standards imposed by the College Board. Still, AP is the common language spoken at strong colleges across the country, and I would have been dead in the water at Georgetown without the skills I learned in the AP classes I had. I can’t speak for Denfeld, but when I was at East, I was impressed with the school’s ability to prepare students for a variety of paths, from elite colleges to the local ones to the trade professions. There was a healthy diversity there, and in my mind, that is more important than relentless pursuit of higher test scores.

The path to tougher classes could be further incentivized by weighting grades. That would give students added reason to challenge themselves, and also might break up some of the grade inflation that can happen in ISD 709. Fifteen people in my East graduating class had 4.0s, which is kind of ridiculous. Everyone gets a medal! Not that there weren’t plenty of very smart people in that group, but there were surely some different paths to those high GPAs, to say nothing of the hyper-competitiveness fostered by the fear that a single B could drop a person 15 spots in their class rank. It would be cute if we could get kids to take high-level courses simply for the love of learning, but a little push never hurts, and getting into the deeper stuff isn’t a bad way to hook people, so long as it’s well-taught.

All of this brings us back to music, and there really is only one solution to that conundrum: get that seventh period restored to the middle school day. I don’t want to hear anyone blaming the Red Plan, and I don’t want to hear anyone blaming state or federal mandates. There are plenty of things I dislike about both of them, but framing all of this District’s issues through them amounts to a whiny denial of responsibility in the here and now. We have to confront reality, not a world of wishful thinking in which things are not as they are. Whatever Supt. Gronseth might plead in a letter, there is no sustainable future for the music programs with a six-period day. I was impressed by his admission in the article that some of the things the District tries to save money “don’t work out so well.” That’s an essential review process, and there is no shame in that admission. We could use more of it in many fields, and no one is above it.

Of course, this is all easy for me to say; we’ll see what can feasibly be done. Tuesday’s Board meeting should be an interesting one: do the Members rehash the same old talking points and past wars, or do they confront the existing problems with both the seriousness and the humility necessary? Their actions over the first few months of this new term have given me some hope. As usual, I’ll be on hand to see if they hit the right notes.


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