Families Leaving West?

Many good things are happening in the Madison Metropolitan School District! This viewpoint and the things we see conflict with the stated concern by some families as they tell us that they will be leaving the district rather than attend West high school. The one reason common to families is that they want their child to have a chance to take AP courses (limited numbers offered at West, in contrast to the other MMSD high schools) for the academic challenge offered to prepare their child for application to competitive colleges. (This viewpoint seems to be paired with a concern that the Small Learning Community approach at West may result in decreased opportunities for other challenging course work). It seems so sad that these families are choosing to leave the district. The contributions that children and parents have made to the district will be greatly missed.
AP offerings seem to be the norm across the nation, yet at least one West staff member opposes these offerings. Can we have an open discussion about issues of concern??? What are the pros and cons of increased AP offerings? Is it important to attempt to retain families currently attending our schools? What do you think? If you have a special interest in this issue, you may want to check below for additional information. . . .


Today was a good day at our school. Our son participated in a “Reader’s theater” in which the 6th graders did a wonderful job of entertaining a room full of supportive parents. Our daughter participated in one of the 3 bands (sponsored by the school), to which she belongs. A great principal welcomed parents and commented on their children, whom she quickly came to know well, shortly after the start of a new school year. My email message to a teacher thanking him for completing some extra paperwork for our son resulted in him taking additional time to send another message of support and compliment. In a discussion about people who have earned our respect, our son immediately identified a teacher. There are so many good things happening that we appreciate at MMSD!
However, in conversations with families, we hear information that indicates that several are concerned that the high school within their boundary area will not meet the needs of their kids and they will therefore be placing their children in school in another district or sending their child to Edgewood or considering Madison Country Day school (OR have already moved from the district). Can it be the same district?? Indeed, these concerns have been shared about West high school. Parents reported a variety of reasons for leaving. There was, however, one common reason among ALL of the families; that being the limited number of AP courses offered at West high.
My original concern about students leaving the district led to a search for information on AP as a central factor impacting their decisions. I fully expected to find that their perception was in error or that there was surely something simple that could be done to add AP courses to meet the needs of more children or that there was clearly something better available to better meet that stated need for challenge and a strong college resume.
As an attempt to gather the complete story about the AP/West issue, I was in contact with the following by email or phone:

  1. TAG staff,
  2. Mr. Rainwater,
  3. several MMSD teachers,
  4. guidance staff,
  5. Mr. Holmes (West principal),
  6. Ms. Nash (assistant superintendent for secondary schools—sent message at request of Mr. Rainwater only),
  7. Department of Public instruction staff,
  8. AP coordinator at West,
  9. UW admissions office,
  10. and 2 members of the Board of Education.

    Additional information was obtained from written reports of the work by Valencia Douglas and Donna Ford, both supportive of AP courses offered for minority students.
    A variety of comments were received:

    • “I’m not opposed to AP courses”,
    • “I think we should increase the number”,
    • “We want the schools to meet the needs of all students”,
    • “Nearly all schools offer a significant number of AP courses. DPI is working to help rural and poor schools provide these courses so that their students aren’t at a disadvantage when applying for college”.
    • “I am not on board with adding AP classes. I would be very depressed if that were to happen”.
    • “I don’t understand why the other MMSD high schools have so many AP offerings while West does not”.
    • “That can’t be right. West used to have such a good reputation”.
    • “Teachers at West do not want to teach these courses, as they find them boring”.
    • “Your kids will surely want to take AP classes”.
    • “Most applicants to college do have AP courses and we expect to see them on their transcripts, although we don’t penalize West students, as we know that few AP courses are offered there”.

    There are many differing and contradictory viewpoints, within this group of district staff, posing a challenge in trying to determine the most valid viewpoint. Several asked me not to reveal their name out of concern for conflict with others. I heard the word “arrogant” twice as staff described others.

    Jan Davidson, author of “Genius Denied” responded to my question (at her presentation regarding gifted education) “What would you say to a school official who opposes AP courses?” I had hoped for some words of wisdom. In fact, she was speechless, as she couldn’t understand why this would be the case. Following the presentation she said that she had heard such good things about Madison that she expected something much different with regard to education here.
    To gain a broader perspective, I checked for additional information on AP offerings outside the district. I sent messages to 20 families who live elsewhere in the state or nation, asking them to identify the AP course offerings at their schools. I persisted until those same households responded. ALL 20 noted that their child’s school offered AP classes in

    • literature/writing,
    • history,
    • calculus,
    • at least one foreign language,
    • several science options,
    • as well as others, with several offering 30 such courses.

    In a class that I teach on the UW campus, I asked students to tell me about their AP course background. Out of 38 in attendance, 37 had four or more AP classes. The one student who did not was over the age of 40 and didn’t have an opportunity for those courses when she attended high school.
    It seems that AP courses appeal to a wide range of students, including many who plan on post-secondary education. Certainly AP courses are not a panacea for all who are concerned about challenging work. West does have some challenging and very well respected courses (although it was a bit difficult to locate that information). Some families who have very bright children are looking for courses even more challenging than the AP classes. In any case, we weren’t asking about “watered down” AP courses, but were hoping for consideration of courses to meet the need for challenges at the high school level. It is hoped that we could address the concern of families who may choose not to attend West for that reason and have an open discussion about any misunderstanding and work toward any needed changes as a team. Many of us believe that all students and families are valuable to the district and that we should actively work to meet all needs and consider all input. When a family who supports and contributes to a school chooses to leave, that seems so sad. I was hoping that representatives of the district may feel the same way. As for me, I was told “West is not in competition for your children”. Ouch!! I suspect that many in the district do not agree with the spirit of that statement.
    There’s a great deal more information out there about AP courses and I’ve developed a special interest in that area. My primary concern though, is for families who may leave the district. I know that there are many in the district who DO care about these and all families. Let’s have a discussion about both sides of the AP issue as well as other issues that may result in families leaving the district.

  • Lucy M

    Thank you for taking the time to do the background work and to publish what you found.
    For those who doubt that people will actually move their children to other schools or leave the district altogether, I would share my anecdotal experience with enrollment decisions at the elementary level.
    Several years ago, I was one of several parents who were trying to convince the district that it was important to serve children who need accelerated curriculum.
    After four fruitless years, I reluctantly made the decision to place my son in a private school (Eagle) where he would receive the level of instruction that was unavailable in the district. That was the year that Eagle opened its new building and expanded its enrollment.
    It took me a while to figure out why some of the other new Eagle moms looked so familiar. It was simple: they, too, were exiled by the school district’s unwillingness to develop meaningful ways of teaching advanced students.
    As a parent, deciding to send my child to private school was an agonizing moment. I am a strong believer in public education. However, I also believe that each parent has a right to act responsibly and in the best interest of their child. By the time we began our four years of private school, I had come to understand that sacrificing my child was not going to budge district thinking on TAG education one bit.
    I wish that I could say that the district has made progress, but I fear that it hasn’t. The arguments against acceleration remain strong – you know, the hint that somehow the child will be marred by acceleration in one or more classes. Each child is different, and acceleration isn’t for everyone. But why are we so afraid to give acceleration and other strategies a try rather than dismissing them out of hand?
    AP has been a rare bright spot for many high school students. It saddens me to read that there is hostility to these courses, which increasingly are a core part of college preparation. (DPI also includes access to AP courses in its measures of academic performance, by the way)

  • Ed Wegert

    Marcia, I was not aware you were working on this. I’d sure like to be involved or help in any way I can.
    Thanks,
    -Ed

  • Marcia

    Thanks to Lucy and Ed. I think that sharing of viewpoints and asking of questions is crucial right now. My hope is that there would be interest within the district in clarifying information on and/or increasing challenging offerings. My original concern was regarding families choosing to leave the district and in trying to meet their needs more effectively. If I learn of anything that could be helpful in those efforts, I’ll be in touch. Thanks much for your interest. Marcia

  • Mike Schwaegerl, retired teacher, union negotiator

    I am a retired teacher who is also a substitute teacher in the MMMSD. I sub only at Memorial High School. I taught six years of English at Van Hise Junior High School and 34 years at Memorial High School. For 25 of those 34 years, I taught English 10 Tag at Memorial. I would like to enter this discussion but I’m not sure how to do it.
    You have my e-mail address. Feel free to contact me.
    Mike Schwaegerl

  • Joan Knoebel

    Our two children are West graduates, our son at Stanford, our daughter at Macalester. Both have remarked that they feel significantly underprepared compared to their college classmates iwith respect to their science courses and attribute it directly to the lack of AP science at West. For instance, our son took two years of physics at West and covered electromagnetism only superficially if at all. Needless to say, his AP-prepared college classmates were simply reviewing this topic while he was learning it for the first time. Similarly, our daughter took biology and biotechnology at West and yet currently finds herself in a bio course where the text employed was the one most of her college classmates used in their high school AP bio class. Again, her classmates are reviewing while she learns much of the material for the first time.
    I offer these anecdotes to underscore the disadvantage West students face after high school. The old objection that AP is simply “teaching to the test” falls flat in our experience. What AP offers is a guarantee that a basic curriculum will be covered, not merely what an individual teacher feels like teaching.
    And this doesn’t begin to address the issue of AP credit and the ability of students to either satisfy requirements and/ or to place into more challenging courses. At some schools, this can mean graduating early (and its attendant cost savings) and/or the chance to complete a masters degree in the undergraduate time frame.
    Especially good at West were the English and history departments despite the lack of AP, as well as Spanish which is AP. However, the new changes tied to the small learning community overhaul I fear will significantly impact the quality of experience in English and history, especially for high achievers. Couple that with a science department averse to AP and it doesn’t surprise me that some families are voting with their feet.
    Marcia, you did a terrific job investigating the state of affairs at West with respect to AP. Let’s hope it will motivate parents of pre-high school students to get involved at West now.

  • Barbara Lewis

    Joan Knoebel’s comment sounds so familiar! My daughter, a West graduate, is now a sophomore at Cornell and has had serious trouble with Chemistry there. Last year she took Intro Chem with many students with two years of high school chem, and not surprisingly did quite poorly. At West she took Advanced Bio, which was basically useless, rather than Advanced Chem, though she certainly would have taken the Chem if it were labeled AP. Our twin sons are juniors at West, and now we know enough to have them take the Advanced Chem. (But Physics still has nothing comparable to AP.)
    We are sorry that we did not move into the Memorial district before high school, but didn’t realize then how different the science curricula are.

  • Marcia

    Thanks Joan,
    Your comments are sobering.
    What other information is out there about experiences related to the science curriculum? Are there some stories of others who did feel prepared for rigorous college courses? Marcia