When Paul Radspinner's 15-year-old son Mitchell wanted to participate in a student sit-in last October outside West High School, he called his dad to ask permission.
"He said he was going to protest, and wanted to make sure I had no problem with it. I thought, 'It's not the '60s anymore,'" recalls Radspinner. The students, he learned, were upset about planned curriculum changes, which they fear will eliminate elective class choices, a big part of the West culture.
"It was a real issue at the school," notes Radspinner. "The kids found out about it, but the parents didn't."
This lack of communication is a main reason Radspinner and 60 other parents recently formed a group called West Cares. Calling itself the "silent majority," the group this month opposed the new English and social studies honors classes the district is adding next fall at West, as well as Memorial. (East and La Follette High Schools already offer these classes for freshmen and sophomores.)
The parents fear separating smarter kids from others at the ninth-grade level will deepen the achievement gap by pushing some college-bound students into advanced-level coursework sooner. They also believe it will eviscerate West's culture, where all freshmen and sophomores learn main subjects in core classes together regardless of achievement level.
"It's a big cultural paradigm shift," says parent Jan O'Neil. "That's what we're struggling with in the West community."
Some consider it odd that adding advanced-level courses could be viewed as bad. Donna Rifken saw her two older children, now Memorial High School graduates, frustrated by that lack of course elective choice at Memorial - a big difference between Madison's two west-side schools.
"I get the issue with dividing and tracking, but you can also reframe that as choices," says Rifken, who now has a junior at Memorial. "So I applaud the district offering any possible enrichment in the areas of English and social studies."
Madison schools Superintendent Dan Nerad believes these class additions will even the playing field and encourage students - all students - to achieve at a higher level. He says the goal is to "create more opportunity to take more advanced courses. I respect the view of those who think it will wind up [separating students], but it's incumbent upon the adults in the system to do everything we can to interrupt that pattern."
The changes have been in the works for some time. They're part of the district's efforts to align high school programs with College and Career Ready Standards (also called Common Core Standards).
This initiative, coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, provides a framework for the district's high school improvement plan, which is still in the planning stages and funded with a federal grant.
These classes also follow recommendations of the district's 2009 Talented and Gifted (TAG) plan. They were actually scheduled to begin last fall, but were delayed a year to give staff time to develop programs.
"We do hold a goal to increase student participation in advanced coursework," says Nerad. "We felt we needed to move forward with those courses, then have a conversation about what do we want to do long-term to align to these standards."
Nerad adds that it's unfair to offer honors classes in some high schools and not others.
But TAG advocates like Lorie Raihala say the addition of these sections will not meet TAG needs. (See below for a correction.)
"The goal of the TAG plan and gifted programming is that it is supposed to be flexible," says Raihala. "Students can decide they don't want to pursue such an accelerated rate in U.S. history but really want to pursue advanced science coursework." Raihala thinks the district's plan falls short.
Raihala is part of a group of 50 West High parents who last September filed a complaint against the Madison school district with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for failing to comply with state statutes for gifted education. (The agency is now investigating and will likely issue preliminary findings no earlier than late March, says DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper.)
What West TAG boosters want added are English and social studies classes similar to current advanced biology. The biology class, Raihala says, engages students in high-level discussion and analysis on intense topics, instead of just pushing additional content.
Raihala understands the pressure some students will feel to sign up for 9th and 10th grade honors English and social studies classes, especially since "colleges are telling them they want to see kids taking the most rigorous classes at their school."
Students raise the same concern. "It's scary to sign up for an honors class and a hard decision if a student is just coming in from 8th grade," says Memorial junior Meredith Paker. She's heard students worry about separating honors students out as freshmen, and the division it could create.
West junior Jacob Carrel is bothered by the possible loss of electives as well as the "growing emphasis on dividing the school along high-achievement groups and low-achievement groups." Carrel is currently in three advanced-placement classes, but describes an embedded honors course he took last year (in which some students work at a higher level) as his favorite.
"As a high-achieving student, I feel like there are so many options, and it doesn't seem prudent to me to claim that high needs are not being met," he says. "Education is a community effort and not individually tailored for everyone."
Nerad agrees it's counterintuitive to add honors classes to fix the achievement gap. But he's determined to stay to course, as is school board member Ed Hughes.
"I understand that reasonable arguments can be made in support of the current arrangement at West," says Hughes. "I respect these views, but I think on balance that the approach we're pursuing is the right one, and there is no convincing reason to delay implementation any longer."
Meanwhile Radspinner and other West Cares parents are keeping their ears to the ground and working to fix what they feel is a fundamental communication gap.
"Dan Nerad started off the Jan. 6 [school] board meeting saying that they haven't listened to parents as much as they should. We're taking him at his word and will keep giving feedback."
Radspinner doesn't think the changes will "fix the ills at the school." He says parents want to address the achievement gap while being mindful of West's culture: "We want to build it rather than take it apart."
CORRECTION: This article about controversial curriculum changes at West High incorrectly conveyed that advocates for Talented and Gifted programs including parent Lorie Raihala are unhappy with the plan. Raihala is in fact very pleased with the addition of 9th and 10th grade English honors courses at West, but has concerns with West's plan to use AP U.S. history and AP European history as programming for 9th and 10th grade students.