Fostering a culture of success in ALL Minnesota schools

As many of you know I’m a community college educator who holds the belief that robust, world-class public education is the fundamental responsibility of any modern, civilized society. People have different views of how we should do this. Some have more trust in private education vouchers than I have. Some believe in reform. Some belief in more funding. I believe in more funding and reform. But that’s all just a baseline look at the situation. Today I’ve got something more specific.

Audrey Kletscher Helbling at Minnesota Prairie Roots wrote a really fine piece of community journalism comparing the advanced placement course offerings at public high schools in her area. She started with a logical assumption, that the wealthier town with fewer students in poverty would have the most AP course offerings and students. That assumption, she writes, proved false. While the wealthier community was no slouch, another nearby town actually offered more AP courses. But she went on to lament that another, similar town had dismal AP offerings, despite its demographic parity.

Her conclusion? The culture of a community and a school have a huge impact on the drive to A) offer advanced courses, and B) push students to prepare for and take them.

I find this to be a fascinating theory in the greater discussion of public education in Minnesota, one that has special relevance to the school districts in my area here on the Iron Range.

I attended the Cherry School for most of my educational career, graduating in 1998 with 38 students. While we did not have the formal AP courses described here, we did have college preparatory classes, some of which were offered through concurrent enrollment with local colleges. I was among several students from this very small, working class school who viewed the pursuit of advanced classes as necessary. All but a few students capable of handling the course material went for the advanced curriculum.

In the years since, I’ve heard – in a mostly anecdotal way – that a combination of funding cuts, curriculum changes and staff reorganization has all but eliminated the multi-track option. In fact, shop and vocational classes were also eliminated. So even students who didn’t care to pursue a liberal arts degree are denied training that would help them find jobs later. This is true across the Range, for a variety of reasons. Yes, state funding formula cuts have badly hurt the region, but so too has declining enrollment and the increasing cost of special education mandates. Nevertheless, some schools have a culture that pushes students toward college preparation and others don’t. The difference between the communities is, on the surface, negligible. Not so of district leadership.

As districts make their plans for an increasingly difficult landscape in Minnesota public schools, they should remember that no matter how bad the money situation gets (and it will get worse before it gets better) that advanced, college preparation courses are a modern necessity. If you can’t prepare a capable student of any means for college or meaningful living wage work, you should not operate a school in this country. And failure to operate public schools in this country is NOT an option.

Consolidation, pairing and sharing, online options and any number of tools can be used in appropriate ways, depending on the logistical and cultural needs of the community in question. Yes, state funding is a major barrier and I’m not discounting that. But organizationally, districts must not rest on the notion that graduation is all that matters for their students. 21st century college curriculum should be considered as important as heat in January.

Regardless of what you think of my opinion, go over to read and follow Audrey at Minnesota Prairie Roots, another blog about life outside the metro in the Great State of Minnesota.


  1. Good post! Since my kids went to the same school system, I know about these college courses. In some respects they were great. That depended on the teacher, more than anything. The local Community College, which oversee these courses, expect that the high school teacher giving the course has certain higher course work in his/her background.

    My third child had some college credits for Spanish that she could have used toward her college graduation requirement, but because she wanted to take more Spanish, they actually tested her verbal Spanish, and she couldn’t hack it, so they wouldn’t give her those credits.

    Theoretically, this program helps the students get through college faster and more cheaply. That depends on too many things to list here.

    My oldest, a 1998 graduate, had the fewest college courses of the three kids. She had more of the traditional high school classes. In some respects, these were actually better classes than the cram-a-whole-lot-into-a-semester college courses that the other two got. The high school course work is aimed at the kids who are at the academic and maturity level of high school kids.

    What I did notice, is that a number of the “college level” courses taught in the local school were harder than HS course work, covered more, but the kids were in the classes 5 days/week (more than in usual college courses.) I thought that the HS teachers did more “hand holding” than the usual college teacher would do. I can’t speak for the way community college teachers deal with their student., but some colleges and universities have a sink or swim way of dealing with freshmen, so a number do sink.

    My kids were well prepared for real college and did well. But they also had great family support and lots of smarts, which I can brag about because they are adopted. Three private college degrees with honors or high honors; one has two masters, and another has one masters. All three, are in jobs or professions necessitating those degrees, but which pay wages below the poverty level for families.

    One thing I’ve wondered about is who is left to take the “regular” HS classes? Does this tracking system, even though it isn’t called that, leave the poorly motivated students and those who strain to even get poor grades left in those classes? Does it mean that they don’t see what can be achieved?

    Overall, it seems like a good system to bring some higher level classes to the rural schools. Classes for gifted children left this district over 25 years ago. My kids compared their HSs with those of their friends. Many had the AP classes, but no college credits. Most others had way way more class choices than they did. My son thinks that his wife, who attended a well known private HS was quite unprepared for college even though she did well in HS.

  2. Timely post. Last night I attended the Greenway schools’ public meeting about the building project to allow the junior high students to move to the Coleraine campus. The consultant/architect sold it as not just an expansion and renovation, but a way to retool the facility to better serve students and offer a richer experience, hopefully reducing open-enrollment brain drain. He talked specifically about how students of both ‘tracks’ can work together – for instance the physics of masonry construction, and the chemistry of Home Ec.

  3. Thanks for the discussion, Aaron. I just visited Audrey’s active website from Faribault, with its working class population including Hispanic and Somali families. Neighboring Northfield (2 colleges) and Owatonna (Josten classrings) have many more advanced placement (AP) high school class offerings,and many, many more kids enrolled.

    Now I will ask our Aitkin Superintendent for the statistics here: about AP classes and the number qualified for meal

    As a one-time school board candidate I remember the intensity of the special ed parents, and how mainstreaming has eliminated most special ed school buildings. But the cost of this “reform” has handicapped the rest of the student body. The federal govt that mandated reforms has never delivered the promised funding as we learned well from sponsor Paul Wellstone. Consequently, the districts and teachers have had to take resources away from the rest to work on individual learning plans. And manage a more complex classroom.

    There used to be more Gifted and Talented programs. We worried in those days about the rest of the math class when the brightest pupils were removed. But it led to more excellent learning and challenge. These kids entered college with a headstart.

    Yes, we need “reform.” But whose reform? And we’ve got to keep from stealing the money promised by state govt to our public schools. The hope of our education is the memorable and exciting teacher who made such a difference and kept at it although much richer occupations were possible.

    Since both my parents were teachers, I can vote in favor of every referendum and levy without hesitation. Teacher pay is 70-80% of our budgets, and up here their pay is not too high.

    -Gord Prickett, Nordland Township

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