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October 15, 2005

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.

    Posted by Marcia Gevelinger Bastian at October 15, 2005 1:48 PM
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