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Denfeld parents seek answers to equity woes

Jenny Wellnitz, a school counselor at Denfeld High School in Duluth, becomes emotional when talking about the needs of the 20 homeless children that attend the school during a meeting for a community-based school equity initiative at Denfeld Tuesday evening. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Denfeld High School counselor Jennifer Wellnitz worked with a student this year who was struggling to prepare for scholarship interviews.

The student, who was homeless, didn’t have the right clothes.

“We ran to Kmart and got the kid something to wear,” she said. “But that was a barrier for that student.”

Wellnitz, speaking at a meeting at Denfeld Tuesday night held by the new parent-led Community-Based School Equity Initiative, described the school’s high numbers of homeless and poverty-stricken students. It was one of the many differences highlighted between Denfeld and East high schools, and one of the reasons the group formed.

Its goal is to come up with ways to create equity between the two schools, which have large disparities when it comes to sheer numbers of students enrolled, graduation rates, students of color, socioeconomic status and students receiving special education. The differences have led to less opportunity for Denfeld students in the form of electives and advanced classes, and have strained teachers who are tasked with teaching to multiple abilities in a single class, and working with kids with many individual needs.

“We want to ensure all of our students have the opportunity to achieve their hopes and dreams regardless of what boxes they check,” said Denfeld parent Bob Feyen, who presented various disparities.

District education equity coordinator William Howes said equality, where schools have the same opportunities, is not the same as equity, where resources match needs.

The effort has been put together quickly, said parent Kevin Skwira-Brown, because educators at Denfeld have signaled an urgency. The idea is to identify what kids need that they aren’t getting, whether they are high achievers or struggling in class, poor, students of color, receive special education services or fall into any combination of those things.

Parents aren’t trying to frame the problem as east versus west, Skwira-Brown said, because it doesn’t help.

But it takes “more and different resources to overcome systemic disadvantage,” he said.

The two high schools have very different profiles. East, with about 500 more students than Denfeld, has a 94 percent graduation rate, less than 10 percent of its students receive special education services and less than 20 percent take part in the federal free and reduced price lunch program.

Denfeld has a 76 percent graduation rate, 26 percent of its students receive special education services and more than half take part in the lunch program. Freshmen coming into the schools this year differed drastically in proficiency for math, reading and science — by more than 20 percentage points each. At Denfeld, 60 percent of its students require intensive academic interventions.

Parent Karen Perry, who is black, said she pulled her kids from Duluth schools when she saw there was little expectation for them to succeed.

“As a parent I have expectations, and I need the community to have expectations” and to value students of color, she said. She said she hopes to re-enroll her kids if she sees work toward improvement.

Superintendent Bill Gronseth said he agreed that the equity issue is urgent, and said work is being done this year with Denfeld leadership to come up with ways to solve it.

“I know there is energy to do something different, and recognition that we need to do something different,” he said, noting two research-based programs to be used to tackle student performance and poverty. Reallocating some money toward Denfeld is a possible solution, he said, and that would mean taking from somewhere else.

The district this year allocated a little more than $5 million to Denfeld, plus another $2.25 million went to the school for special education. Not including special education, that breaks down to $5,271 per student, using Denfeld’s Dec. 1 enrollment of 960.

At East, $5.9 million was allocated, plus another $1.35 million for special education. That breaks down to nearly $4,000 per student, leaving out special education, with an enrollment of 1,484. Because of enrollment, East received more money for teachers. Denfeld received more money for its higher percentage of low-income students.

Denfeld teachers shared with the parent group some of their own ideas to create change, including the following:

  • Give some of the district’s allocated Title I money to Denfeld. The school qualifies, but the district prioritizes money for younger students. Lincoln Park Middle School and Lowell, Laura MacArthur, Myers-Wilkins, Piedmont and Stowe elementaries get the bulk of Title I funds.
  • Add a seventh period to Denfeld only.
  • Research what works at other schools with similar demographics, and train staff in those methods.
  • Allocate more low-income funding to the school.
  • Staff the school to allow at least two sections of advanced placement, College in the Schools and honors courses with small class sizes.
  • Offer transportation from October through March to students living within two miles of the school.
  • Become a trauma-informed school, which means staff are trained to deal with kids struggling with difficult situations like homelessness, or violence or drug abuse at home.

Get involved

People are invited to give ideas and feedback about the topic at facebook.com/duluthequity.

The next meeting held by the parent group is from 7-8:30 April 13 in the Denfeld Media Center, where feedback from Tuesday’s meeting and elsewhere will be shared. Recommendations will be taken to the April 18 School Board meeting.

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