Duluth News Tribune 

Middle School Controversy

By Noam Levey and Jason Skog
News-Tribune staff writer

The Duluth School Board voted Tuesday night to delay a back-to-basics move for middle schoolers, assuring that art, music and other noncore classes won't be cut back next year.

The unanimous vote to table the plan from the district's administration came at a meeting where more than 300 parents, teachers and students packed the Duluth School Board room.

The proposal could come up again, but only after a task force including parents, teachers, students, curriculum specialists and community members considers facets of it. Their work wouldn't be complete before planning for the 1997-98 school year begins.

Dozens of parents spoke passionately Tuesday night on how so-called noncore classes critically broaden students' experiences. And they bashed the move to shift the emphasis of seventh and eighth grades back to basics.

The meeting culminated a week of frustration for some parents, teachers and students who were dumbfounded by a proposal that seemed to drop out of the sky.

The meeting also vindicated some who knew that curriculum breakdown numbers cited and circulated by the district were inaccurate. Hours before the meeting, a district official admitted the numbers may not reflect the kinds of chasses seventh- and eight-graders are taking.

Reaction to the vote was lukewarm among key members of Concerned Parents for a Ballanced Curriculum, a grass roots organization that supports a mix of core courses and exploratory or enrichment courses.

"I'm skeptical," said Mary Schroeder, a member of the parent group, which dominated Tuesday's meeting. "I'm hoping the superintendent will include
the people he says. I don't trust them . . . If they truly let us be part of this task force, then OK."

Currently, seventh and eighth-graders spend about half their days studying core courses like math, reading, social studies and science. During the other half, they take noncore courses in subjects such as art, music, home economics, physical education and health.

Under the proposed change, noncore courses would be reduced to only one-third of students' days. Administrators acknowledge these noncore courses are important, but they say Duluth needs to concentrate more on the ba- sics.

"It's time on task," said Superintendent Mark Myles. "If you want the basic subjects to improve for everyone, you have to spend more time on them."

Recently released results showed that 40 percent of Duluth eighth-graders failed the Minnesota basic skills test.

And back-to-basics calls are also part of a broader move to make Duluth's middle schools less like junior high schools where students typically take more noncore courses, said Duluth curriculum director Mary Ann Lucas-Houx.

Middle schools generally have longer periods that allow teachers to develop core subjects more fully, Lucas-Houx said.

The emphasis on core courses  allows teachers to spend more  time with students and to develop interdisciplinary approaches to teaching social studies, science, math and reading, Lucas-Houx said. "We think this is what we said we wanted to do for a number of years," she said.

But administrators' explanations did little to placate parents.

Jerry Kaldor, who teaches elementary music in Hermantown and directs the Hermantown Youth Chorus, has had three sons in the Duluth public schools. "They have been involved in art and music in junior and senior high," Kaldor said. "And I firmly believe that without that experience, their education ...would have been much less"

Parents like Karen Alworth, who has children at Congdon Park Elementary School and Ordean Middle School, bitterly criticized school leaders for ignoring parents.

"I don't know how to make this any clearer," Alworth said, gesturing to the vast audience. "There is a lot of commitment in this room. This is parent involvement."

Jon Vomachka, principal of Morgan Park Middle School, told
board members he and his colleagues at the other three middle schools have been discussing the proposed curriculum change for several weeks.

"I think we all believe very sincerely in the middle-level philosophy," Vomachka said. 

Pressed harder, Vomachka told board members he had some more concerns.

"I'd hesitate to say that anything is the best, but this is an approach - it's an approach we haven't tried, and there are several parts of this philosophy that will work," he said.

Mary Cameron, board member and chairwoman of the education committee, said she was  surprised more people hadn't learned about the plan's specifics before Tuesday.

"I don't feel comfortable moving on this tonight from the mere fact that there are parents and students who don't know what's going on," Cameron said.

Parents' anger has been compounded by confusion over inaccurate information released last week by the school district that suggested Duluth middle schoolers spend only one-third of their time studying the core curriculum.

In fact, students now spend half their time on the core curriculum.

There also was initial confusion over whether some fifthand sixth-graders would change schedules next year as well. They will not, Lucas-Houx said.

Lucas-Houx admitted the district's numbers may not have been an accurate reflection of what students are actually doing in Duluth's middle schools. She said the information came from the district's policy manual some of which was based on
schedules students use to choose their courses.



Teachers to take confidence vote on Myles


In another sign of rising tension between Duluth teachers and Superintendent Mark Myles, teachers this week are considering a declaration of no confidence in the superintendent.
Many teachers have been deeply troubled by Myles' support of the Edison Project.
They have been stung by what many say are Myles' unjustified criticisms of Duluth's schools. And many say the superintendent has not included them in important decisions like changing the middle school curriculum.
Teachers are still voting on the declaration. Results may be available by the end of the week.

the numbers may not reflect the kinds of classes seventh- and eighth-graders are taking.
Reaction to the vote was lukewarm among key members of Concerned Parents for a Balanced Curriculum, a grass roots organization that supports a mix of core courses and exploratory or enrichment courses.