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December 5, 2005

Reply to Carol Carstensen re: West HS

Dear Carol,

First, let me say a hearty and heartfelt "thank you" for replying to my 12/2 email request -- and so promptly. One of the major frustrations parents have experienced over the many months we have been expressing our concerns about what's happening at West HS is the chronic non-responsiveness of the people we have been trying to dialogue with. (Frankly, I am continually amazed to see how little understanding District officials seem to have about how their silence makes difficult situations much, much worse than they need to be.)

Also, I am glad to know that you see the issue of heterogeneous versus homogeneous grouping in classrooms as "a broader policy issue" that the BOE has a responsibility to involve itself with. I hope you will also agree that the conversation -- if it is to be a responsible and meaningful one -- must be empirically based. To that end, parents have repeatedly asked District officials for MMSD data and empirical studies from the educational literature that support, for example, the changes being made at West and the District's drive, generally, towards heterogeneous classes in our middle and high schools. I hope you, too, will insist that those data and studies be brought forward and evaluated thoroughly before any actions are taken.

You say, Carol, that we have to give this time. Well, let me fill you in a bit so that you can appreciate that we have, indeed, given it time and, in fact, have been quite patient.

I wrote my first email to a West HS administrator regarding my concerns about the plans for West in April of 2004, several months before I became a West parent. (My email exchange with Mr. Rathert actually became his monthly column in the Regent Reporter the next month.) Similarly, I corresponded with current West Principal Ed Holmes (and members of his staff) about the same issues and concerns several times last year and met with him in his office for almost 90 minutes in May. At that time, I offered to be part of the team that was going to be working on the science and English curricula over the summer. I also asked to please be kept abreast of developments. I didn't hear anything further about anything Mr. Holmes and I had discussed (despite multiple inquiries over the summer and early fall) until I read the October issue of the Regent Reporter. In a word, I was outraged that I and the many other concerned parents I know who had written to and met with Mr. Holmes had been shut out of the process so completely.

Carol, over the course of the past almost two years, I have made the same points over and over -- to administrators, teachers, superintendents, BOE members -- regarding my concerns that the curriculum changes occurring at West are not able to meet the learning needs of all students, specifically, the highest and lowest performing 15-20% of students. Appropriate learning opportunities for certain groups of students at West (in particular, the "high flyers") are clearly eroding, making it an ever more different learning environment for them than exists for their counterparts at our other high schools. Sometimes my focus has been science (e.g., the need for additional sections of Accelerated Biology); more recently, it has been English 10. In all of my correspondence, I have requested hard data and empirical studies that support the decisions being made. Many other parents have written to and met with the same District staff. They have expressed the same concerns and made the same requests for data. All of our efforts have been to no avail.

You also need to know, Carol, that at the 11/7 West PTSO meeting (which was the first time the West administration shared with parents the details of the plans for English 10), it was mentioned that the 2006-07 course catalogue is due at the printer in December. That's this month. As well, West students will be registering for their 2006-07 courses in early February. Alas, despite our best efforts and quite enormous patience, really, we have been unable to avoid a time crunch because of the clear use of the well-worn District strategy of stonewalling-plus-letting-the-clock-run-down.

Personally, I think we have given the Performance and Achievement Committee adequate opportunity to act on this matter. As you know, I wrote to them on 11/21 (hand-delivering my letter to Shwaw Vang) and again on 11/28. I also left a message for Mr. Vang on his home answering machine the morning of 11/29. In each communication, I stressed the urgency of the matter; but still no response. Carol, if you can promise us that West will not go ahead with its plans for English 10 (nor will the District proceed with any concrete plans that involve heterogeneous grouping in our middle schools) until there has been a thoroughgoing, data-driven, community-wide conversation about the fundamental issues involved (for example, what is the evidence that English 9 has had a positive impact on the achievement gap at West? shouldn't we know that before we expand the approach into 10th grade?), then I promise to relax and assume a less urgent stance once again. I will also wait patiently until January for that conversation to start. I am sure that others will join me, but if and only if they see that the clock on these projects has truly been stopped in order to allow for a better process.

I have every confidence that you understand the wisdom of such a course of action for our great community ... and that you can make it happen.

Many thanks,
Laurie Frost

P.S. Mr. Steve Rosenblum made a point in his email to you that I have often wondered about myself. Can you offer any insight into the matter?

If a student were to arrive at one of our high schools with, say, phenomenal basketball skills (shooting 90% from the free throw line and over 50% from the three-point line, dominating the backboard like nobody's business, etc.) -- the result of a combination of natural ability, hard work, and years of play outside of school and at specialized summer camps -- would we make him play on the freshman team (i.e., take Basketball 9)? Or would we immediately put him on the varsity squad (i.e., into AP Basketball)? Would we hold him back out of concern for the feelings of all the kids (like mine) who aren't that good at basketball or don't like basketball, insisting that he be patient, play at a level far lower than what he is capable of, and not learn anything new while we worked to bring all the others up to some common level of play? No way. Not in a million years. You know as well as I do that he'd be put on the varsity/AP team immediately, he'd get lots of media and community attention, and people would thrill at the thought of him playing for our side for a four full years.

Why is this a "no-brainer" in the world of sports, but a "no-no" in the world of academics? Any thoughts or insights would be greatly appreciated.

Posted by Jeff Henriques at December 5, 2005 12:21 PM
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