She made her point with one song sung entirely in Spanish. Denfeld junior Maria Puglisi successfully protested her school’s decision not to offer Spanish 5 next year, a class that earns high-schoolers college credits, gives them a head start on their higher education and saves them on tuition in college. Puglisi drew a standing ovation during her school’s annual talent show not only for her beautiful voice but for the stand she took.
But Puglisi’s moment in the spotlight this month produced more than a protest. She sparked a conversation our community and school district ought to be having on an ongoing and regular basis, a conversation about equity - or the lack of it - between western Duluth’s Denfeld High School and Duluth East High School.
“It appears Duluth is heading toward a future of haves and have-nots between the two schools - with a city that reflects that idea,” was the way retired Spanish teacher Ann Kucinski decided to get to the heart of the conversation in a commentary published on today’s page that was written after she read about Puglisi and the plight of Spanish 5.
That’s not the way it was supposed to be, with haves and have-nots, east vs. west, Denfeld pitted against East. The Duluth school district’s Red Plan, with its controversial closing of Central High School, was supposed to result in equal offerings and opportunities at both the remaining schools. There was supposed to be balance in student enrollment and balance in demographics, including family income.
But is this balanced? More than 57 percent of students at Denfeld come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The percentage at East is just 21.7 percent.
Or this? While Denfeld has about 1,100 students, East has about 1,600. That means more money for East for offerings like Spanish 5 as money is distributed on a per-student basis.
“We don’t want that (imbalance),” Duluth School Board Chairman Mike Miernicki said in an interview Friday with the News Tribune Opinion page. “What principal doesn’t want to be able to offer every class and everything? … But they can’t.”
Focusing the conversation here on class offerings, Spanish 5 still will be offered next year at East. But that won’t help Puglisi and others from Denfeld who started taking Spanish courses in middle school and who had every right to expect the opportunity to finish them. Commuting between the schools is allowed only for “two-hour blocks of time” and not for single classes, Denfeld’s principal told the News Tribune for the story about the talent-show protest.
And that may not even be the final word, according to Superintendent Bill Gronseth. While students signed up for classes in February, final decisions about class offerings next year, including Spanish 5 at Denfeld, won’t be made until closer to the end of June.
“Right now we’re kind of in the middle of the process. There are a lot of things considered along the way. We look at staffing levels. We look at projections,” the superintendent told the Opinion page. “Every year there are courses we don’t offer due to a lack of interest and a lack of registrations, just like a college. If there aren’t enough kids signed up then we can’t run it. Some (classes) we try to do every other year, so if they don’t get it one year they can get it the next.”
All the same courses are offered at both Denfeld and East, Gronseth assured. No matter which school a student attends, he or she has “the same opportunity to sign up for the same classes. It’s the same course book.”
That may be, but as Puglisi and others learned in a painful way, just because a class can be signed up for at Denfeld or at East doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be offered. It doesn’t mean there’ll be equity.
At Denfeld, 22 seniors-to-be signed up to get a head start on their college careers via Spanish 5. That wasn’t enough, and the class was canceled. At East, where more students overall helps ensure enough sign-ups for upper-level and special courses, Spanish 5 will go ahead as planned.
Whether intended or not, that imbalance exists, causing some to see an unacceptable haves-vs.-have-nots Duluth. It’s an imbalance that has to be fixed even if it means adjusting the boundaries for Denfeld’s and East’s student bodies.
Every high-schooler in Duluth deserves the same opportunities. And right now that’s not happening.