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Discontent brews over school changes
Is Madison moving toward more homogeneity in the classroom?

Mathiak: 'There are a lot of reasons to be concerned.'
Mathiak: 'There are a lot of reasons to be concerned.'
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Last year, amid the uproar that followed West High School's replacement of more than a dozen elective offerings with a core curriculum for 10th-grade English, Madison Superintendent Art Rainwater told the school board that such changes would be a "major direction" in the district's future.

Some people see signs that this shift is now occurring.

Concerns about eliminating course offerings are being aired at East High School, which has traditionally offered an array of elective courses in core subject areas. Principal Alan Harris is expected to unveil the plan at a parent meeting on Thursday; officials declined to release details before then.

"There are a lot of reasons to be concerned," says Lucy Mathiak, a school board member whose son attends East. "It does sound a lot like the West model, and that's not what East parents asked for," especially those who participated in this spring's planning group called East 2012.

Also percolating is fear that La Follette High will eliminate its four-block class schedule, which allows for longer class periods. Rainwater says he doesn't want to "rule it in or out." But to cut four-block by next year, final decisions must be made by early February, which Rainwater concedes may be "very difficult to do."

Clearly, there are changes afoot. "We're taking a very broad look at all parts of our high schools," Rainwater says. "We're looking at research and the literature and best practices around the country."

Madison's high schools have their own personalities, and one of the big challenges will be to strike a balance between uniformity and autonomy, as well as between policy analysis and public involvement.

Mathiak, for her part, feels key decisions are being made without public input and then unveiled to parents as a fait accompli.

"I can say with great certainty there was damn little input on any of the proposals from parents," she says about changes at East. She worries whether staff there "can speak freely" about the proposals and is "very disappointed" with principal Harris. "Either he's been snowing us so that we'd support him, or he's under pressure."

Talk of impending changes to high school course offerings coincides with concerns about limiting the credits students can earn from non-district courses. This was to be discussed Monday by the school board's performance and achievement committee, but was delayed a month without explanation. Two parents pleaded for board action, saying delays will affect student registration options.

Under a state program called Youth Options, students can enroll in outside classes that aren't offered by a school district. In 2004-05, 50 students took courses at the UW, Edgewood and MATC, paid for by the district. But the district is only required to pay for these courses, and give credit, if it doesn't offer a comparable course.

One of the parents who spoke Monday was Janet Mertz. Last year, her son, a West High student, wanted to take a history course at UW-Madison and earn high school credit for it. District officials declined to pay for the class, saying a comparable one was available at La Follette, but agreed to award credit.

This year, in a similar situation, Mertz was told her son would get no credit for a microeconomics course, purportedly due to a policy change prompted by Madison Teachers Inc.

Pam Nash, deputy superintendent, says no policy change was made, and chalks up the Mertz case to miscommunication, suggesting a counselor "misinterpreted" district rules in giving credit for the history course.

To avoid future confusion, Nash drafted new guidelines that apparently restrict credit for courses that fall outside the Youth Options mandate, including courses offered by UW Extension, online courses, and courses from the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth.

On Monday night, Mertz told board members that Nash's new guidelines "are very different" from past practice and are "already being enforced" without board oversight.

The issue exposes a rift among Madison educators. Phil Hubble, a veteran counselor at Memorial High, says most educators, himself included, "have a problem" with students earning outside course credit. He says teachers want to make sure these courses "meet the state standards and guidelines."

Such arguments fail to persuade Mathiak, who registered as a parent and spoke before the board committee on Monday. In an interview, she asked, "What educational reason is there to say that the only classes you can take are ones that are offered in this building? It makes no sense whatsoever."

Indeed, Mathiak continues, "All it does is produce bad public relations and tells parents who are already worried about curriculum that you better think twice about whether this is the place for your kid."

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