Sitting cross-legged on the ground or perched high on stone sculptures outside the school, about a quarter of West High's 2,086 students staged a silent 37-minute sit-in Friday morning outside their building to protest a district proposal to revamp curriculum at the city's high schools.
The plan, unveiled to Madison School District teachers and parents this week, would offer students in each high school the chance to pick from advanced or regular classes in the core subjects of math, science, English and social studies. Students in the regular classes could also do additional work for honors credit.
Designed to help the district comply with new national academic standards, the proposal comes in the wake of a complaint filed against the district by parents in the West attendance area arguing the district fails to offer adequate programs for "talented and gifted" ninth and 10th grade students at West. The complaint has prompted an audit by the state Department of Public Instruction.
But as word about the district's curriculum proposal swept through West late this week, students became concerned that it might endanger some of the elective courses now available at West. It's also not an effective way to reach the district's goal of closing the district's racial achievement gap, said senior Jacob Fiksel, a protest organizer.
Speaking through a bullhorn on a brisk fall morning, he told the peaceful crowd of about 500 students that the district should have asked for student input on the plan. The lack of communication has caused a lot of "confusion" at the school, agreed senior Ryan Contreras.
"I believe everybody here has the right to access the information about what's happening at our school," he said.
Why the change?
Superintendent Dan Nerad did not attend the protest. But in a phone interview, he said that the district's proposal is the result of two years of work and was sparked by national core curriculum standards that Wisconsin has adopted and that local districts will have to comply with in coming years.
Other factors prompting the plan were a desire "to address the achievement gap in more accelerated ways," to discourage students from leaving the district through open enrollment by offering more academic rigor, and to address parent concerns about opportunities for "talented and gifted" students, Nerad said.
Lorie Raihala, one of the 50 parents who signed the complaint to DPI, said Friday the district's plans may provide for the additional advanced-level classes her group wants to see.
"I think it looks like a good first step, but there are some definite questions we have about it (such as) how increasing the number of AP classes would work," she said.
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Another goal is to make high school offerings more consistent across the city, Nerad said.
Currently only West has "embedded honors" classes where students can do extra or different work to earn honor credits, yet the school has the fewest number of formal AP courses of any high school in the district, he said.
Nerad said the plan would not eliminate electives at West.
"If anything, I think the question over time may be, should our other high schools have electives that more approximate what West High has?" he said.
The students at Friday's sit-in — participating when they'd normally be attending their third- and fourth-period classes — hoisted signs with slogans such as "West is United / Can't Be Divided" and "What's the Plan, Dr. Dan?" directed at Nerad. The superintendent said he met with 75 West students Thursday and will meet with others next week.
"I think it's awesome" that students voiced their concerns through a peaceful public protest, said Lisa Yackel, the parent of a sophomore at West who attended the sit-in. A handful of other parents turned out as well, some with video cameras, to document the action.
Organizing fellow students through Facebook and word-of-mouth, the event's leaders originally planned a protest march from West to school district headquarters nearly two miles away. That changed when student leaders decided they didn't have enough information yet about the district's curriculum plan to make their case, Fiksel said.
Boys and Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson also spoke at the sit-in.
"I support what you're doing because your education is going to affect you," Johnson said. "We're going to be with you every step of the way."