The long hallways of Washburn High School in Minneapolis fill with students; some walk passively, others more swiftly. Laughter and chatter echo in the stairwells as students travel to their next class.
A loud bell interrupts the fleeting minutes of passing time. As fast as the hallways filled, they empty once again. Class begins.
The scene was different last year when too many students hung out in the halls long after the bell. Teachers frequently had to step outside to tell off students who were skipping and disrupting their classes.
Indeed, Washburn has undergone a series of major changes within the last year under the “Fresh Start” program. More than 60 percent of the teachers are new this year, and more than 20 are new to the Minneapolis Public School district.
There’s also increased attention toward discipline, tardiness and skipping class. The changes were required after Washburn’s students failed to make adequate progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Program for several years.
There are some mixed reactions to the changes among students. More academically focused students tend to like the change while others are more critical.
Aries Mosley, an 11th grader who has attended Washburn throughout the changes, said: “I don’t like it because people were comfortable with their teachers, and this year you have to build a whole new relationship with the (new) teacher.”
Nathan Holloway, a senior, shrugs. “I guess it didn’t affect me that much,” he said.
Conversely, there are many who feel the innovations have been a positive influence on them. Ty Vega, an eleventh grade athlete who plays volleyball and runs track while maintaining As and Bs, said “there’s better teachers. I feel like the standard seems higher and I’m expected to do better and that motivates me.”
She says her focus on her schoolwork has improved, Vega said.
“We were looking for teachers who want to build something for kids, … (teachers) who have passion, skill and are ready to get their hands dirty,” said Carol Markham-Cousins, the principal at Washburn High School for the past two years.
She called the fresh start a “transformation towards a place where students are more successful.”
To achieve a higher success rate, Markham-Cousins plans to bring back art programs like studio art, drama, music and band. She also believes the school needs to look more clearly at academics and try to achieve a balance where students are successful yet challenged. In order to change the culture at Washburn, she pushed for a simple, yet strict code of behavioral expectations: Respect, responsible use of electronics and proper dress.
The number of suspensions, referrals and transfers has gone down since last year, she said. “We do have stats reflecting a decrease in referrals and suspensions. It has not been without bumps and difficulties.”
Students agree that the staff has become stricter about banning the use of electronics such as cell phones and MP3 players during the school day as well as enforcing the “no head-gear” policy.
“They’re more uptight about rules,” said Isaac Mutcherson, a junior who was recently told to put away his MP3 during passing time.
“Not all students are happy with the change, but I receive overwhelming positive remarks on the change,” Markham-Cousins said.
There is an increased focus on the students’ responsibility for making an effort. Teachers heavily monitor the students who are late to class and have no problem nagging them to get to class on time.
Last year, my chronic tardiness to first hour brought me to an unpleasant grade. This year, my habitual lateness spurred my teacher to nag me until I got my act together. My teacher will tell you too that my attendance has been stellar!
Washburn maintains periodic “hall sweeps” and students caught in the hall after the last bell rings are given detention or an unexcused tardy. Also, students who struggle academically and try to avoid class are set up with a contract to get them back on track.
Faruq Abdal-Sabur, a chemistry teacher at Washburn for more than six years, thought the transition was smooth. “The only downside to the fresh start is the departure of very experienced teachers; there have been issues with the new, young teachers getting along with students,” he said.
Sabur also described the increased number of meetings and trainings for teachers and said the “new energy and optimism that the new teachers bring is good.”