Edina High School - via district facebook

In a contentious meeting that stretched into the early morning hours of Nov. 19, the Edina School Board voted against administrators’ wishes in approving a policy revision meant to increase academic rigor in the district beginning next school year.

The revision to Policy 601 adds several honors courses to the list of options at the middle schools and high school, but critics of the plan said the additions are being made with too much haste and at the cost of other initiatives.

School Boardmembers Amir Gharbi, Sarah Patzloff, Ellen Jones and Owen Michaelson voted to approve the measure, which they said is in response to years of clamoring from parents who perceive the district to be in academic decline.

The plan’s opponents – including Boardmembers Leny Wallen-Friedman, Erica Allenburg and Matt Fox – criticized the plan for its short implementation timeline and a redirection of resources in favor of advanced learners.

The move to add more advanced courses comes as the district has seen more resident-students leave.

“We’ve lost 322 over two years,” Gharbi said, noting that the proportion of students opting out has increased from 15% to 20%.

“So we’re clearly going in the wrong direction,” Patzloff said.

The revised academic offerings include the addition of honors classes for language arts, science and social studies at the middle school level. At the high school, the policy calls for the addition of honors courses in language arts, physics, biology, sociology, French and Spanish.

Board Chair Leny Wallen-Friedman agreed with the idea of enhancing the district’s academic rigor, but not as presented in the policy revision.

“I am in favor of examining the programs that we have, just not in this bulk fashion,” Wallen-Friedman said. “ … Do we need a higher level of rigor? Yes. I just don’t think this is the way.”

He suggested that the district instead address academic rigor as individual subjects come up in the regular curriculum review cycle.

But a parade of parents sat in front of the board to call for the policy revision’s approval. Of the 14 parents who addressed the subject to begin the meeting, 11 were in favor of the plan, many saying their children aren’t being challenged enough.

Administrators balked at the way the proposal was developed––as a policy change spearheaded by Gharbi, Jones and Michaelson.

“Tonight’s really the only opportunity we’ve had to give some input on Policy 601,” Superintendent John Schultz said.

Like Wallen-Friedman, administrators didn’t come out against the idea of addressing academics.

“We just want to be part of the conversation about what that exactly looks like and have a stake in that as administrators in our building, and also the feedback from the teachers,” Edina High School Principal Andy Beaton said.

But a contingent of parents had been pushing for enhanced academics for some time. “This policy didn’t come out of the blue,” Patzloff said, noting it had been under discussion since June. “ … How have you not had a chance to weigh in?”

Zero-sum game?

Michaelson saw the academic measures as a return to the days before the district’s current strategic plan was approved in 2012. The previous plan was one “where we had pretty much a robust and unapologetic gifted-and-talented program,” he said.

Parents opposing the policy revision argued that it benefits the top academic performers at the expense of others, such as the district’s population of students with dyslexia.

At the heart of the argument over resources is the cost to create the new courses. The plan’s champions estimate it will cost about $200,000 to implement the change. That projection was made after a requirement for teachers to be certified in gifted-and-talented instruction was struck from the proposal.

Based on an earlier version of the proposal, the administration estimated the implementation to cost $416,000. Further, other course development projects will have to be put on hold, according to district staff.

“It is a violation of our ethical governance and fiduciary responsibility to vote a change that pulls resources from one area to another without understanding the full impact,” Fox said.

Opponents of the plan also said it presents staffing and scheduling challenges, particularly at the middle school level, where students are grouped together so that they take many of the same classes as a cohort. Valley View Middle School Principal Shawn Dudley fears that model will be disrupted by the new class offerings, arguing for the nurturing benefits of the model.

“When kids feel safe and they feel welcomed and they feel like they belong, they will perform better,” Dudley said.

Addressing student stress levels is one aim of a new strategic plan that will be put to a vote early next year. The revised Policy 601 supersedes two years of work on that guiding document, Fox argued.

Plus, the school board will be reshaped as of January, with Gharbi and Patzloff on the way out. Newly elected Julie Greene and Janie Shaw will be the new faces on the board.

“We know in January that the board won’t support this decision,” Fox said.

Jones acknowledged that the topic will come up again. “I realize that if we vote on this tonight and if it is approved, it will come back to the board very quickly at the beginning of the year,” she said.

However, approving the policy change ensures a transparent conversation, she added.

The vote to approve the course additions came despite the efforts of Allenburg to table the decision for a later meeting.

“I’m asking my fellow board members to take a more thoughtful approach to this policy and bring it back to the work session and policy committees, too, so we can get this right, for all of the students in the district,” she said.

With only one more regular school board meeting left in his tenure, Gharbi lamented the resistance he’s seen to the push for more academic rigor.

“What’s difficult with this one,” he said, “is how frowned upon these ideas are and how difficult it is to get any traction with them.”

The recomposed school board will first meet Jan. 6.

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