A Tale of Two Duluths: Why Are So Many Denfeld Students Struggling in College?

About 40 percent of graduates from Duluth's western high school start college unprepared.

About 40 percent of graduates from Duluth's western high school start college unprepared.

When 24 angry teachers from Duluth's Denfeld High School penned a letter complaining that too many failing students were getting bumped up to grades they couldn't handle, a Twin Cities legislator took matters into his own hands.

State Sen. Chuck Wiger (DFL-Maplewood) introduced a new bill on Monday demanding that school districts throughout Minnesota adopt strict guidelines for when to pass students and when to flunk them.

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As far as Duluth educators are concerned, the bill's a condescending load of bull.

Duluth Denfeld teachers are rightfully ticked because preparing their students for college and the real world is pretty hard when those kids arrive in high school still struggling to read and write. When primary and secondary school teachers keep pawning off failing kids to upper grades, those same students eventually end up in remedial classes in college.

A whopping 40 percent of Denfeld graduates are in that boat. At Duluth East, the district's only other high school, 22 percent of students struggle in college.

Harry Welty

Harry Welty

That historic problem, and its east-west divide, is something near and dear to Duluth's heart. Some feel Wiger can't just swoop in and fix it.

"School board members are wont to moan and complain about the terrible, terrible invasive attitude of the state legislature in thinking they should all be school board members," says Harry Welty, a longtime teacher and self-identified district troublemaker.

Welty says the problem with Denfeld comes from the century-old divide between west Duluth's blue-collar tradition and the richer east side. In the mid-1970s, Denfeld was almost the equal of East in every way, he says. But folks in Duluth are just now waking up to massive demographic changes exacerbated by 2010's condensing of the district's three high schools to only two.

When Denfeld swallowed up Duluth Central, the gulf between the east and west deepened, Welty says. A higher proportion of Denfeld students now come from lower-income families.

By the sixth grade, students are getting segregated -- the rich go to East and the poor get lumped into Denfeld, where the school population is smaller and course offerings are limited.

Denfeld junior Tommy Olson says the lack of options for students learning at different speeds is a major part of the problem. There are a couple of algebra electives and three levels of physics, but when it comes to English and history, kids are packed into the same class.

Olson is a straight-A student, but he feels for other kids who just aren't cut out for academics. Constantly getting held back could discourage them from reaching for that high school diploma, he says, but making school easier is no way to educate.

"Some kids will never use algebra in their job and some will never touch chemistry," Olson says. "Just because those classes may have been hard for them, it's not fair to make them have to pass that class in order to graduate high school."

If there's an easy solution to Denfeld's achievement gap, he's sure nobody has any clue what it is. However, Duluth superintendent Bill Gronseth is certain that holding kids back never helps them in the long run.

"Kids who want to push themselves harder don't have the same selection as kids in the eastern high school," Welty says. He predicted that Duluth's plan to combine Central and Denfeld would lead to some unfortunate consequences. But he doesn't see how Wiger's bill could add anything to what local teachers are already doing.

"We already have these policies, but apparently they're not working in one school, according to a large section of the teachers. Is there some remedy for us? We poured our money into bricks and mortar and not into faculty," Welty says. "That was a choice that the past school board made. I just don't know."

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