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.

A Meeting that Cannot Be Summarized Pithily: Duluth School Board Notes, 3/18/14

Despite Chair Miernicki’s earnest pleas that the ISD 709 School Board hurry through its meeting so as to get home before too much more snow fell on Tuesday night, the audience was instead subjected to a marathon of a meeting. The Board crammed a lot in to its two and a half hours of business, and it wound up being one of the more memorable meetings I’ve seen.

The night began on a musical theme, as the Duluth East Choralaires and Sterling Strings both performed in honor of Music in the Schools Month. (This former Sterling Strings bassist was pleased with the performance of his successor.) Ms. Teri Akervik, the schools’ Music Curriculum Specialist, then put in her plug for music programming in the schools, talking of the “roller coaster” of funding cuts over the past decade. A citizen speaker who gives private music lessons, Ms. Jana Blomquist, gave an even more pointed plea. She compared Duluth to her former home in Iowa, where children began on instruments at much younger ages, and claimed there was a large gap between the talents of young musicians in surrounding districts and those in Duluth.

Another speaker gave a brief update on the schools’ community garden project, happily noting the strong attendance at a recent meeting and hoping for a future opportunity to give a longer update. In the Superintendent’s report, Supt. Gronseth acknowledged the success of several teams in interscholastic competitions, including the high school robotics competition held in Duluth two weekends ago and the Destination Imagination improv competition for younger grades. He also plugged the two teams nearest to my heart: the Duluth East hockey team, and also the East Knowledge Bowl team, which is sending two teams to State this year. (Live it up at Cragun’s, kids…I was fortunate enough to go three times, and each one was a blast.)

After that, it was on to the Education Committee report, which was lengthy this time around. There was some brief discussion of the busing in the District’s HeadStart program, though the funding there does not come from the District, so it didn’t go very far; Member Johnston expressed his relief that Piedmont Elementary’s HeadStart was up and running again after temporarily falling victim to the sequester. Next, Member Welty apologized for misrepresenting historical graduation rates in past comments; after doing further research, he’d noted the District was in somewhat better shape now than it was ten years ago. Member Johnston was happy to see some goals set for improving graduation rates, though he also took a moment to once again point out Duluth’s brutal achievement gap for African-American and Native American students, with the added caveat that he is “not blaming anybody but [himself] as a Board member” for that situation.

Next up was a plan to align District curriculum with broader standards, which Supt. Gronseth had announced would be happening at a much faster pace than previously planned at last month’s meeting. If this had struck anyone as a curiously fast acceleration, the reason became all too clear over the past weekend, when a story broke in the News-Tribune claiming that Laura MacArthur, the west side elementary school lauded for its dramatic turnaround on state test scores, had effectively abandoned social studies and science curriculum in order to reach that goal.

The issue is a complex one. For starters, there were plenty of complaints about overbearing dictates from higher levels of bureaucracy. Member Johnston decried the “top-down” orders from Washington, and both he and Member Westholm talked about the troubles of using test scores as the judge of a school’s quality; Member Westholm had an anecdote about the particularities of geometry curriculum from his time at Denfeld. Chair Miernicki noted the irony in the fact that ISD 709 is allegedly an “independent” school district when there are 44 benchmarks from on high for one single elementary school. Some of the most scathing remarks came from Member Seliga-Punyko, who blasted the “hypocrisy” of the state Department of Education for chastising Duluth over its curriculum standards so shortly after identifying Laura MacArthur as a “priority school” based on its test scores. The District had taken its grant to turn the school around and done exactly that, earned national recognition, and now they were being criticized for doing it all wrong? She also took a rather delicious (though also not exactly accurate) shot at the Dept. of Education for “approving a charter school for hockey” while coming down on Duluth at the same time.

As usual, Member Johnston went a step further in his criticism. He “hope[d] the accusations are false,” but was upset about hearing about the confusion from the newspaper, not the Administration, and said he had made many inquiries in emails to the Supt., many of which he did not respond to, while the Department of Education had always responded to his queries within an hour. “We’re the last to find out anything,” he complained, repeating the gist of his comments about five times. Supt. Gronseth disagreed with some of these characterizations, saying he had indeed presented several updates as plans evolved. Member Welty, while more diplomatic in his remarks, expressed similar sentiments. He worried that the District had “panicked” over the test scores and cut corners to fix the issue, and thought the situation demanded further review by the Board. He hoped the Administration would cooperate on the matter.

The Board then took up a reconsideration of last June’s vote to move ahead with a plan to close high school campuses during the lunch hour. Chair Miernicki suggested rescinding the plan, saying he’d been “opposed from the outset,” and had worries about the costs, use of personnel, and the ability of the schools to enforce the policy. Joining him in criticism were the two non-voting Student Members. Member Manning said it made schools feel like a “prison” and would probably burden students who are already disadvantaged, and that forcing people to be in a place is not effective for education; Member Tremble said he’d spoken with many Denfeld students who disliked the change, and added that “a small percentage are ruining this” for everyone else. Member Welty talked of his exchanges with Officer Mike Tusken on the matter, and said he was at least open to the idea of a closed campus, but did not think the District had committed the resources necessary to ensure that the closed campuses would not be prisons. “We don’t have our ducks in a row,” he said, adding that the Board should “wait to do it the right way.”

The defenders of the open campus were led by Member Seliga-Punyko, who came out with guns blazing. She said it would decrease truancy, allow for less substance abuse, make for better neighborhood relations, and lead to fewer accidents. She questioned the motives of anonymous administrators who gave the program a $200,000 price tag, saying most of the expenses had already been accounted for by the Long-Range Facilities Plan, and scoffed at the notion that a half-hour in a lunchroom with one’s friends was akin to a prison sentence. She and Member Harala also talked of upholding the past Board’s precedent, though Member Welty pointed out that he hadn’t been on that Board, and Member Manning said there was nothing wrong with going back to re-visit something after gaining more information.

The Board spent a fair amount of time talking about a mysterious thing called a “power hour,” which momentarily freaked me out, because anyone in my generation associates that phrase with the excessive consumption of alcohol. (I’m not exactly a member of the temperance brigade, but if that’s happening during school lunch hours, closing the campuses is a no-brainer!) To my relief, it was instead some sort of enriching way to fill that time during the lunch hour that some schools use, though no one ever bothered to explain what this might entail. (But seriously, do people not Google these things before they name them?) There was much vague talk of implementing this sort of thing, though it never moved beyond that.

Member Harala, noting that these things could be talked about forever if nothing decisive was done, called the question; the measure passed. The margin was apparently 4-2, with Members Welty and Miernicki in opposition and Member Johnston abstaining because he was on the fence, though it was hard to tell, as Chair Miernicki made no effort to count the votes, and Member Johnston’s abstention only came to light much later in the meeting. Member Loeffler-Kemp moved to put the funding for the program into the Business Committee report, which frustrated Member Johnston; Member Welty worried that sort of move would cut off further debate, while Member Westholm said it didn’t lock them into anything. It was placed into the Business Committee report by a 5-2 margin, with Members Welty and Johnston opposed; once there, the measure passed 6-1, with Member Johnston again in the opposition, and pointing out that the District could pay the salaries of three teachers with the money spent on closing campuses.

Next up was the proposed make-up of some of the seven days lost to weather this year, which tacked on two full school days and added 12 minutes to each school day for the remainder of the year starting next week. Member Johnston said the twelve minutes “seemed kinda silly” but couldn’t think of a better method, and announced his support; Member Welty seemed to agree, pointing out potential lost funding due to lack of school hours. He and Student Member Manning also asked if something could be done to accommodate students with after-school jobs, but Supt. Gronseth nixed this with the mother of all education euphemisms (“every conversation is worth having, but…”), and noted that all students would mysteriously get after-school jobs if this allowance were made. Chair Miernicki said that, as a former teacher, twelve minutes could make all the difference in the world. There was much inspired talk about what can be made of twelve minutes, with Member Harala noting that most TED Talks are that long, and Member Welty saying he’d learned a novel new shoe-tying method from a TED Talk in three. The rest of the Education Report was then approved unanimously.

The Human Resources Report was up next, and there was some rare debate there, as a three-year renewal of Supt. Gronseth’s contract was on the table. Member Johnston suggested they table the measure to allow for more debate, but no one seconded the motion; Member Welty said he’d been tempted, but he deferred to the wisdom of the previous Board, which had conducted an evaluation of the Supt’s performance the previous year. Member Johnston asked if he might have a private forum to air some of his concerns, but Chair Miernicki told him the process had to be public; with many qualifications and apologies, Member Johnston said this was the “last chance” to bring up a number of issues. He then went down a laundry list of his concerns about the District, including cuts in staff, curriculum, the credit rating; rising class sizes, deficits, tax burdens; and no progress on bringing lost students back to the District. He also noted that the Supt’s salary ($168,000), while flat, was the highest of any non-Metro Minnesota districts. He claimed Supt. Gronseth had not been vetted properly, though the rest of the Board disagreed; Member Harala also pointed out Duluth’s size as justification for the higher salary, and Chair Miernicki called the Supt’s performance in the evaluation session “outstanding.” Member Welty said he thought many of Member Johnston’s concerns deserved attention, but reiterated his support, and the contract passed 6-0, with Member Johnston abstaining.

The rest of the Human Resources Report passed unanimously, as did everything in the Business Report other than the previously discussed funding allocations. In the closing comments, Supt. Gronseth thanked his colleagues on the podium for his new contract, and Member Harala thanked the work of those on the Education Equity Advisory Committee. Student Member Manning brought the night full circle by worrying about the effects of the 6-period middle school day on the District’s music programs; Member Seliga-Punyko agreed wholeheartedly. Member Welty also concurred, but said he wasn’t sure how the District could save its music programs without a “serious re-evaluation of how we do these things…talk is cheap.” Member Miernicki closed the proceedings with a tongue-in-cheek moment of prayer for no snow day the next day, and had his wish granted, as the storm skirted Duluth.

***

I know this post is already long, but there was a lot to digest in this meeting and I’m in an opinionated mood today, so I’m going to offer more commentary than usual.

First off, compliments for everyone: there is a superb diversity of views on the School Board right now. The debate is great, and while there are heated exchanges, they are not personal. That’s a night and day difference from the last term, and it’s a big step in the right direction.

Now, some critiques and opinions. I’ll begin with Ms. Blomquist’s comments on the music programs, in which she said Duluth’s instrumental music programs were worse than those in neighboring districts. This was certainly not my experience when I was in ISD 709 6-10 years ago; in fact, it was quite the contrary, and as I participated in a regional youth symphony, I had pretty good grounds for a comparison. Several members of Sterling Strings open enrolled from Hermantown, in large part because of the music program. That said, the recent move to a six-period middle school day is indeed grave for the music programs. If I were an ISD 709 8th grader today, foreign language almost certainly would have taken precedence over music, and my orchestra career would have ended there. I’m not sure the trickle-up effects of the schedule change have had enough time to make the impact suggested by Ms. Blomquist’s alarmist language, but if something isn’t done soon, it will get there in time. This is a real concern.

I don’t have a strong opinion on the closed campuses; there are benefits to doing it, and I don’t think anyone will really be unduly burdened by it. That said, it just doesn’t make a whole lot of financial sense right now, and I think there are far more pressing issues on the District’s plate.

Also, to be blunt: Chair Miernicki is a good man, but there were way too many procedural errors in tonight’s meeting. I understand he was trying to get through things quickly because of the weather, but the amount of time lost due to missed lights, misstatements, and parliamentary confusion far exceeded any time he might have saved by trying to hurry things through. It is far better to pause for a second to make sure one has allowed everyone to have their say and has the proper procedure lined up than it is to go barreling ahead to save a few seconds here and there.

On the Laura MacArthur situation, it’s hard to say much without all the facts, but it’s worth noting that the Administration never denied the charge, and the rapid response certainly suggests there was a serious, if not total, cut to programs outside of reading and math. I can only imagine what my reaction would have been if I had a kid there and that happened, and I’m especially concerned for the plight of the Laura Mac students who already were doing reasonably well in reading and math. There’s plenty of blame to go around. No one is really wrong here; federal standards, education bureaucracy, excessive testing, Red Plan-related cuts, and a contradictory Department of Education all come into play. Ultimately, though, I find Member Welty’s characterization the most accurate: if true, this was a sad overreaction, and the buck has to stop with the District.

Not knowing the details, I can’t comment too much on the communication dispute between Member Johnston and Supt. Gronseth, but there is obviously room for improvement there on both ends. I’ve said this before, but things that Supt. Gronseth seems to think are clear and transparent are sometimes anything but—and if they aren’t to me, they certainly aren’t to the general public. Member Johnston, meanwhile, still has his moments of tiring obstreperousness, but to be fair, he is practically falling over himself trying to be polite and qualify his comments. For all his disruptive history, I don’t doubt he’s acting in good faith so far in this new term, and whether or not we agree, some of his questions deserve answers.

The problem is that the Board doesn’t really have a good mechanism for raising the big picture questions he and Member Welty want to raise. It’s very easy for the majority of the Board to go along with business as usual, and that rarely gives chances for big picture questions, since so many things happen in such a piecemeal fashion. With the Red Plan rancor starting to fade away, it might finally be possible to have a serious conversation here that doesn’t devolve into the blame game it has been for the past six or seven years. That would take some maturity out of certain debate participants that isn’t always there, but I have some confidence it would work.

Half of the time, I want to roll my eyes at the critics, many of whom are running around like Chicken Little and creating a big fuss, which in turn creates a self-fulfilling PR prophecy for the District. If you really think this District is in bad shape, especially considering its demographics, get out of Duluth for a bit. On the other hand, relentless positivity in the face of real problems, including some new problems that (whatever the cause) have popped up in the past few years, gets to be pretty grating after a while, and gives the impression that some heads are buried in the sand. With our diverse and fairly civil Board, I’d be curious to see what comes out of a serious big-picture appraisal of the District. Yes, there would be some risk of picking at scabs, but I’d be inclined to give all sides credit no matter what comes out of it.