Teachers, principal address Duluth School Board on Denfeld underachievement

Denfeld High School can't solve its problem of underachievement alone, principal Tonya Sconiers told the Duluth School Board on Tuesday. With 75 percent of its freshmen class deficient in math and 67 percent in reading, the school can only do so ...

Denfeld High School can't solve its problem of underachievement alone, principal Tonya Sconiers told the Duluth School Board on Tuesday.

With 75 percent of its freshmen class deficient in math and 67 percent in reading, the school can only do so much, she said.

The board, at its education committee meeting, heard from teachers and Sconiers in regard to letters sent to it and district administration in January signed by two dozen Denfeld teachers. The teachers had concerns about the practice of advancing students to the next grade or course despite nonmastery of a previous grade or prerequisite subject matter. They advocated for the district to enforce the passing of certain required, foundational classes before students are allowed to move on.

But Sconiers said on Tuesday that improving student achievement comes down to interventions.

The Denfeld staff is looking at what it can do, but "we're also looking at what, as a district, we have to offer when you have such high numbers that need those interventions," she said.


The teachers' letters described instructing juniors who can't write complete sentences and freshmen who are at fifth- and sixth-grade math levels. State data shows that in 2013, 40 percent of Denfeld graduates who enrolled in a private or public Minnesota college needed remedial courses in either their first or second years. The state average is 24 percent.

Superintendent Bill Gronseth has cited the district's use of interventions as a better practice than the use of retention in trying to catch students up, noting many of the things in place - such as extra reading instruction or better use of student data - need time for success. Minnesota's education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, has said research shows the chances of graduating are reduced by half for students held back just once. Students must pass classes to graduate, and do so often through credit recovery programs.

On Tuesday, Denfeld math teacher Tim White said retention isn't the opposite of intervention.

Having a student repeat a class, he said, "is an intervention. Maybe it's the last intervention you can play ... We're trying to teach trigonometry to kids who can't add or multiply ... you need to pass the prerequisites."

Board member Mike Miernicki said he was concerned by Sconiers' data, and asked how the district was expected to reach the state's and district's goal of a 90-percent graduation rate by 2020 with such numbers. Its 2014 graduation rate is 74.8 percent.

Denfeld science teacher Kevin Michalicek said teachers aren't looking to hold high school students back entire grade levels. But certain requirements need to be fulfilled before moving on to something more advanced, he said. Physical science needs to be mastered before taking biology or chemistry, for example.

"We can only do so much reteaching. We have all these standards to cover," Michalicek said. "We can't take six to eight weeks to cover standards from a previous class."

Board members Harry Welty and Art Johnston expressed skepticism at what Cassellius has said about retention.


"Obviously promoting them, as the teachers point out, to fail additional classes doesn't help them either," Welty said.

Gronseth said schools like Laura MacArthur Elementary show what progress can be made when, for example, student data is used faithfully. That school saw dramatic gains in state test scores after reworking much of how the school is run, its success due in part to three years of extra federal funding it received for being among the lowest-performing schools in the state.

There are things the district can do, Gronseth said, to better support students at Denfeld and other schools. Conversations about that have been happening since the letters were sent, he said, noting the concerns of Denfeld teachers came up through new teacher collaboration meetings built into the school day. Those meetings are part of district strategies to improve academic performance, he said.

Denfeld has several ways to help students who have fallen behind, including a school-within-a-school for freshmen. They stay in one classroom and teachers from core subject areas come to them. There are 19 students this year, and they've made gains, Sconiers said.

But Denfeld doesn't receive federal poverty aid that goes to low-income, or Title I schools, despite its low-income status. The district chooses to place that money at elementary and middle schools that qualify.

Laura MacArthur, Sconiers said, had a "masterful plan" to raise student achievement, put in place by its principal and other school employees. But it also has the use of extra money, including federal poverty aid.

"Denfeld is a highly underperforming school," Sconiers said, but it has to find ways to improve academic performance without Title I money.

There's been progress at Stowe, Laura MacArthur and Piedmont elementaries, and Lincoln Park Middle School, "and those are our feeder schools," she said to the board and district administration. "We're looking for your help putting that recipe for success together at Denfeld."

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