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Denfeld principal, counselors worried for their students and future opportunities

- Denfeld High School teacher Bob Fox collects test papers in a College in the Schools chemistry class on Tuesday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 6
Denfeld High School students Jessica Davis (from left), Meghan Snyder and Hailey Borgeson take a quiz in a College in the Schools chemistry class on Tuesday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)2 / 6
Denfeld High School teacher Bob Fox covers terms and concepts students need to learn in a College in the Schools chemistry class on Tuesday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)3 / 6
Denfeld High School student Brendon Johnson takes notes during a lecture in a College in the Schools chemistry class on Tuesday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)4 / 6
Audrey Tusken5 / 6
Majestic Lasky6 / 6

Despite registering for more advanced, core-subject classes than she could conceivably take in a six-period day, Denfeld High School student Majestic Lasky was this fall scheduled into three study halls, and only one requested class.

The college-bound senior worked with guidance staff to juggle her schedule, but because the school offers just one section of most advanced courses this year, she was stuck with two study halls.

“It’s frightening, because we are applying to great universities,” Lasky said of herself and other students experiencing the same problem. “I can’t stop thinking about what’s going to happen when I send my transcript in and I am a senior with two study halls.”

Lasky is one of many Denfeld students who struggle to create a schedule that fits in all the college-credit earning and transcript-enhancing courses they want. It results in less opportunity, including the kind of education they hope to get out of high school and the sort of depth and rigor that colleges and scholarship committees seek.

Denfeld guidance counselor Diane Fitzgerald noticed a troubling effect for at least one local scholarship this fall: It had been awarded to a disproportionate number of East students.

Counselors work with students on interviewing skills, essay writing and application completion, Fitzgerald said, and “we try to fix what we can fix, and know they are turning in great applications. But still (the disparity) was glaring.”

For each of the last four years, higher percentages of East students received the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation’s Robert B. and Sophia Whiteside scholarship, which awards $6,000 a year for up to four years to students who attend a Duluth high school, among other requirements.

In 2015, 1.1 percent of East’s enrollment earned that scholarship, while less than half a percent did at Denfeld. The foundation said the number of students who actually applied from each school was confidential information.

Fitzgerald wrote a letter to local scholarship foundations asking them to consider the plight of Denfeld students.

“When comparing transcripts of students from across Duluth, please consider the fact that not all Denfeld High School students have the opportunity to take advanced classes, even though they may have requested them,” she wrote. “In my opinion, because of set boundaries, our school district has chosen to make one high school smaller than the other, giving more opportunity to students on one side of the city.”

The problem is not new, although Fitzgerald said it appears worse this year. It exists largely because of declining enrollment and state aid, which resulted in the Duluth school district’s 2003-04 elimination of the seventh period and moving from three high schools to two as part of the Red Plan, a building plan that closed and consolidated schools while renovating and building new schools.

Since that consolidation, Denfeld has taught at least 500 fewer students than East High School because of the way the enrollment boundary was drawn under that plan. Moving the boundary farther east would likely result in further widening the income and minority population gap between the two high schools.

What’s happening at Denfeld, said principal Tonya Sconiers, is a negative unintended consequence of the building plan.

“We need to take a step back and evaluate our long-range plan; how it has positively and negatively impacted all of our students in the district,” she said, and modify if needed, to meet the needs of students.

No easy answer

With fewer students at Denfeld, usually only one section of an advanced or elective class is offered, and if it conflicts with another single-section offering, kids choose. That can happen multiple times in the building of a schedule.

Because of interest and funding, East kids face the same problem to a certain extent, but they generally have more sections to pick from because there are more students.

For example, Denfeld has only one section of College in the Schools college composition, while East has four. Denfeld has one section of CITS pre-calculus, while East has five. And Denfeld offers CITS anatomy and physiology every other year, while East has three sections this year.

To Sconiers, the effect on scholarship opportunities is only part of the issue. Kids take several paths post-high school, whether they go to a four- or two-year college or head straight into the workforce.

“In Duluth public schools, we want to make sure students have equal access to learning opportunities,” she said. “They need a level of understanding educationally in anything they choose to do beyond high school.”

The district has worked to fix the problem, said Superintendent Bill Gronseth. Three years ago a common course catalog was formed for the high schools, in lieu of each school building its own.

District administration worked with principals from both high schools last spring post-registration to try to support the same courses for each school. If each wasn’t able to offer the same number of courses, the district tried to ensure a teacher was available to teach at least one section, said assistant superintendent Amy Starzecki.

“So, even if there were only 20 kids in Spanish 5, we wanted to make sure it was run at Denfeld,” she said.

That means some of those single-section classes at Denfeld are small. To offer the option of taking it during another part of the day, a class might shrink further, or grow, by opening a new avenue. It would also require more funding.

At East, kids sometimes lose out when a section gets too full. CITS courses generally have enrollment caps, so kids can get pulled if the limit is hit, said principal Danette Seboe.

Reinvesting in the seventh period is a popular possible solution to the problem. It was removed more than a decade ago because of deep budget cuts, and it saved more than $1 million. Adding it back today, Gronseth said, would be more expensive, and would also tack on to a likely deficit for the coming year’s budget. That would mean cutting something else.

“There is no easy way to address a sizable increase like that,” Gronseth said. “It would affect class size, it would affect what we are able to offer. While we would have seven periods, I think the quality of what we are able to offer would decline.”

And those offerings are part of what sets Duluth apart, Starzecki said, between its career and technical education programs to its advanced music and college-level courses.

Other solutions include streamlining what the district offers; work that’s already begun. It’s looking to eliminate courses that have the lowest interest at both schools, so resources can be directed elsewhere. The district could also change some of its own requirements, such as one that says college credit is earned for a fifth year of a language. Many districts award at year four, Gronseth said.

He also noted that the district was updating an enrollment study, which might show changing demographics.

Students have other choices to avoid scheduling conflicts, but they aren’t perfect.

The post-secondary enrollment option, which allows high school students to take college classes at area colleges, works for kids who meet their enrollment deadlines. But that wouldn’t have helped students who learn of scheduling issues at the start of the year, as Lasky did, said Denfeld counselor Geri Saari.

And some kids want to stay in school and not miss out on the high school experience, said science teacher Alison Wood.

“For a small handful it’s a really good thing, but a lot of people are launching earlier than they would prefer,” she said.

Online courses are another option, but don’t work for every student.

A widespread problem

The problems illustrated by Fitzgerald are seen regionwide, said Patty Salo Downs, executive director of the Marshall H. and Nellie Alworth Memorial Fund, which awards about $1.2 million in scholarships each year to students who live in one of 10 area counties.

“Schools struggle with offering courses for what we call the ‘high flyers,’ ” she said. “It breaks my heart.”

Across Northeastern Minnesota, she’s seen high school kids take online courses, go to college full time and petition their school boards to add a certain class. But academic rigor is only one factor considered when looking at who earns a scholarship, she said. Others include ACT scores, leadership roles, volunteerism and written essays.

“I had one student who had taken the most advanced math course as a junior and had nothing more to take,” Salo Downs said. “He took it again to continue to work on math. He became almost a teaching assistant.”

“We’re looking for the sure bets,” she said. “The people who are committed to obtaining their dreams.”

The Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation also awards scholarships to much of Northeastern Minnesota and some of Northwestern Wisconsin, to the tune of $1 million each year. Foundation president Holly Sampson agreed that scheduling conflicts are widespread, and that many variables are considered in choosing award winners. Scholarships have different requirements, too, such as area of study, school or need, often defined by the donor. The analysis of advanced courses, she said, is done school by school.

“That creates equitable positions across schools,” Sampson said.

Denfeld is known for its large endowment — about $7 million currently — meant for only its students. About $350,000 will go to Denfeld students who apply for a number of scholarships this year, said Greater Denfeld Foundation chairman Bill Westholm.

“It does get a little bit tougher because the population is smaller,” he said. “If we don’t have enough kids to give money to, we would increase the amount of money” going to those awarded.

Equity across the district

Denfeld has fewer students than East, but it has more students living in poverty and receiving special education services.

“In the broad scheme of things, we need to give Denfeld more because it costs more money to educate kids in poverty,” said School Board member Alanna Oswald. “We need to do better for all of our students.”

Denfeld does receive funding that East does not based on the students it serves, but it’s spent on extra support for kids who need it.

Fitzgerald would like investments made to have more sections of some advanced courses, even if they are smaller. Some students are losing out on the chance to earn free college credits, Fitzgerald said, and it hits hard at a school that has a lot of poverty.

Denfeld has intelligent kids, she said, “full of heart and knowledge and grace. We want to make sure they get every advantage.”

In the meantime, counselors and teachers work hard to fix what they can, said Denfeld senior Audrey Tusken.

In order to maintain a rigorous schedule, she’s taking an advanced Spanish course online, as opposed to not taking it. She doesn’t begrudge the opportunities at East, she said, but wishes she had the same.

“If they are going to say it’s equitable across the district, then it should be,” Tusken said.

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