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Madison West High School

The "personalized pathways" initiative being introduced next fall in the Madison School District has spurred both support and concern among parents and students. The most push back so far has come from West High School and the middle schools that feed into it.

A major educational restructuring is underway in the Madison School District with the potential to fundamentally change the high school experience for all district students.

Beginning next fall, the district will start phasing in “personalized pathways,” described as a way for students to explore college and career options and to learn more about their passions.

The concept will start relatively small the first year, with 120 to 150 freshmen at each of the district’s four main high schools voluntarily opting into a health services pathway.

Eventually, the approach could become the new reality for all high school students. District administrators say their “current vision” is for the initiative to become compulsory by school year 2022-23, when it would be fully built out. There would be four to six pathways by then.

Before that happens, though, there is expected to be a crucial trigger point — probably midway through the second year — where administrators and School Board members will take what’s been learned and decide whether to keep moving toward full implementation.

Meanwhile, all 1,718 Madison eighth-graders are to receive in the mail this week an invitation to apply for next fall’s first pathway group. And parents and students are learning about pathways at a raft of meetings, generating excitement but also intense skepticism.

“The concern among parents is palpable,” said Michelle Mouton, a district parent with one child at Hamilton Middle School and another at West High School, where pushback has been the most vigorous. “It seems that a good deal of detail is being made up on the fly and some hard questions are being avoided at times.”

Some parents say they welcome the approach as a pivotal way to address longstanding racial and economic achievement gaps and to help all students focus more deliberately on what inspires them. Others bristle at the idea that students as young as 13 have any idea — or should have any idea — what they want to do after high school, and that forcing them into a pathway locks them into courses that will detract from the richness of a broad high school education.

What it is

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, hired in 2013, said she’s trying to create a culture where every student walks out the door with a post-high school plan, whether that’s college or something else.

“This is new, and it’s incredibly important if every child is to be successful,” she said. “We want students to be in the driver’s seat, to set their own goals for after high school and to do it in a systematic way.”

The pathways idea, she said, addresses a problem repeatedly voiced at community forums and in student focus groups.

“Students and families said they could not see the relevancy of the coursework,” she said. “Students were going from one class to the next in a disconnected way. And because of this lack of relevancy, they were not making it to the finish line.”

The initiative is to have five key components:

Small learning clusters that create family-like structures;

Rigorous and linked courses;

Academic and career planning;

Support tailored to a student’s needs;

Real-world learning opportunities through community partnerships.

Cindy Green, who oversees curriculum and instruction, said a freshman in the pathway next year at a high school with a seven-period day will take the usual four core classes — English, social studies, science and math — plus a health services class. For the health services class and for three of the four core classes (math might be the exception), the 120 to 150 students in the pathway will be together in some configuration, though the makeup of each class will vary depending on schedules.

Instructors in the core classes still will teach the traditional curriculum, but they also will collaborate to provide occasional opportunities for interdisciplinary projects or assignments that relate to health services, Green said. This will provide the thematic tie.

Additionally, each pathway student will be able to pick two electives, such as music, art or foreign language. In these classes, pathway students will mix with peers from outside the pathway.

Cheatham said the approach should be seen as adding to the richness of the high school experience, not taking anything away. For students already succeeding, the approach will serve them even better, she said. For those not succeeding, the switch is essential, she said.

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“This is an equity strategy, no doubt about it,” she said. “Students with strong support networks and with families who have gone to college have more information about what their options are. Others are left to themselves to figure it out, and that’s not OK.”

What it’s not

This isn’t tracking, said Alex Fralin, a district administrator who oversees middle and high schools. The term, in its most extreme and now rarely used form, refers to students being placed in courses based on perceived intellect or ability — some groomed for college, others relegated to less-challenging curriculum.

“I hear that term and I think of some adult somewhere making a decision for a student,” he said.

With pathways, students will choose where they go; nothing will be predetermined for them, Fralin said. “We want kids to develop a strong sense of self.”

As for supposedly forcing 13-year-olds to choose careers, Fralin said it won’t be like that. “It’s really about deep reflection of who they are — What do I like? What are my passions? What are my interests? How do I learn best? How do I set a goal to be a better leader or to think better?”

Why eventually make participation compulsory?

“We think all kids will thrive in this new way of teaching and learning,” Fralin said. “And having studied other schools and districts, we know that once a school gets close to 50 percent of its freshman class in a pathway, it creates a strain on the scheduling of classes.”

Current high school students will not have the option of participating, so little if anything should change for them, Fralin said.

Within the health services theme, each high school gets to pick a focus for its approach. At West High School, the theme will be “health equity for social justice.” School officials say this approach will make the pathway applicable to not just future doctors and nurses but to dozens of other careers, from an art therapist at a hospice organization to a hospital architect or an attorney fighting for the uninsured.

A second pathway option is scheduled to be added in 2018-19 for incoming freshmen. Its theme hasn’t been announced.

Major funding to plan for pathways is coming from the private Joyce Foundation in Chicago, which provided $400,000.

Mouton was among several dozen parents at a meeting earlier this month on pathways at West High.

A history professor at UW-Oshkosh, she said the achievement gap is undeniable but that it is unclear whether the pathways initiative is suited to address it. Many parents are concerned that in trying to help students who aren’t succeeding, the district will dilute the diverse electives that have served West students so well for decades.

“I think if you have a 91 percent graduation rate (like at West), then there’s probably a better way to help the other 9 percent than reorganizing the entire high school,” she said.

Hope, concerns

By “pushing pathways so hard and so rapidly” in the face of such uncertainty, Mouton said, administrators run the risk of losing highly skilled teachers, narrowing the educational focus away from a broad liberal arts curriculum, and eroding parent support for the school.

Susanne Treiber, another parent at the West meeting, said that while many of the concerns being raised are valid, she is “very hopeful” about pathways and would not have qualms about enrolling her son, a seventh-grader at Hamilton Middle School. Another son attends West and a daughter graduated from there.

Treiber said both of her older children have had powerful experiences at West in classes with a thematic approach. She views the pathways model as extending that approach across disciplines.

“I like the collaborative element of this, of themes being interwoven across content areas,” said Treiber, who coordinates the writing center at the Truax campus of Madison Area Technical College. “It helps students realize how concepts relate to various subject areas and to the real world.”

Shannon Kunstman, a physical therapist and the mother of three children in the district, including a daughter in seventh grade at Cherokee Heights Middle School, said she’s intrigued and excited by the concept but needs more specifics.

“I think there’s a lot of speculation and rumor out there, so what I’m trying to do is stay really open to the idea and learn about it,” she said.

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