Claire Westra is a high school senior who spends half her day online, taking free, advanced college courses that will soon count toward a bachelor’s degree.
Minnesota’s offered them since the 1980s. Plenty of other high schoolers do the same. But in Fulda, a small town of just 1,300 in southwest Minnesota, earning credits from anyone besides a district teacher can land a student on her high school’s shit list.
Claire is one of about 10 Fulda High School students enrolled in Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO). She takes three courses online through Minnesota West Community and Technical College. The rest of the time, she’s enrolled in traditional Fulda High classes.
It used to be that Claire would go to Fulda classes when she had them, then spend her off periods sitting quietly in the library or the computer lab to do her college work.
This year, Fulda Principal Gregg Slaathaug came up with a new rule banning PSEO kids from the building during the hours they’re not in classes offered by the Fulda school district. Fulda High equipment and staff are off-limits to them as well.
That means Claire now goes to jazz band before school, finds somewhere else to kill time during the first period, returns to school for the second, and leaves again during the sixth period.
She lives close enough to drive back and forth from home. Other students have had to go to City Hall or the library. When they are coming and going, students have to sit on one designated bench until the bell rings.
Claire’s parents, Kayla and Dayton Westra, are suing Fulda Public Schools over what they believe is retaliation against students who must enroll in PSEO because the local high school doesn’t offer the electives necessary for their future majors.
Unlike other college programs, PSEO courses aren’t taught by high school teachers. That means that state funding accompanying each student gets split between the school and the college offering PSEO.
“For 10 hours my daughter’s expelled every week,” Kayla Westra says. “There’s the additional risk of forcing children in their cars, on the road. They have determined they can change her schedule at will.”
Kayla also alleges that Principal Slaathaug ambushed PSEO students last spring without publically proposing his new trespassing rule to parents or getting it approved by the school board. She says he called all the kids to a meeting and gave them a copy of the new policy the day before they were supposed to finalize their schedules. As a result, a number of students dropped out of PSEO entirely.
The Westras first filed suit with the Minnesota Court of Appeals in mid-October. Their attorney, Andrea Jepsen with the School Law Center, says this uncommon move would have given the case limited review, which is far less costly than a full trial in district court.
The suit was quickly dismissed when the Appeals Court ruled that the suit had more to do with the rights of PSEO students at Fulda in general than Claire Westra’s individual rights, and thus belonged in district court.
Fulda stated the reason for its new policy was that PSEO students were taking resources away from full-time Fulda students by attending study hall and using the library.
The Westras resubmitted their suit in district court on November 9. District attorney Trevor Helmers did not respond for comment.
The lawsuit has been divisive in Fulda, Kayla admits. She is a dean at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, and her detractors within the community have accused her of driving funds from Fulda to the college.
As Minnesota’s population shifts toward metro areas, the pressure that rural schools feel to keep a tight grasp on every cent a student is worth is a very real concern, says attorney Jepsen. But she believes the way for these schools to remain attractive is to broaden their electives, or to ask the legislature to amend unsustainable educational funding structures across the state. Those solutions just aren’t as easy as bullying kids out of taking classes meant to decrease their future college debt, she says.
The next hearing in this case is on December 7 in the Cottonwood County Court, where the Westras will ask for a temporary suspension of Fulda High School’s PSEO policy.
“We’re going to ask the court to allow these kids to sit in the open seats in the study halls that occur every hour instead of having to leave and sit in their cars, or walk to another building or whatever it is that they can find open, until this matter ends up going to trial,” Jepsen says. “Because it’s going to get colder.”