MISD revisits private school credit, grade policies | MIHS parents dismayed with new off-campus policy

Dozens of Mercer Island High School parents, propelled by an administrative decision to change the school’s off-campus credit policy, gathered to protest the move at last week’s School Board meeting.

Board members listened duly to each parent’s argument against the proposed action for nearly two hours. Many of the parents had children enrolled in private math classes at the Privett Academy on Mercer Island. Most of the concern expressed was over the high school’s “inadequate” math program.

“The parents who spoke were all opposed because they felt the school district delivered unsatisfactory practices in math class,” said Superintendent Gary Plano. “It’s all about the fact that our math instruction doesn’t meet our student needs.”

The revised off-campus credit policy states that, although credit for off-campus courses will be recorded on the MIHS transcript, the class grades will not. As such, the grades will not be incorporated in a student’s GPA or class rank. The previous policy, in effect for the past three years, did allow students to add their off-campus grades to the MIHS transcript.

An additional change to the policy states that a student may take “no limit in number of [off-campus] courses,” whereas the previous policy limited a student’s credit to “four approved courses or eight semesters.” The policy was also slacked in that off-campus courses only need the principal’s approval (rather than the principal and curriculum director), a student is no longer required to “demonstrate mastery of district course targets,” and syllabi are only required for classes not offered at MIHS (rather than all courses). These last revisions, according to MIHS Principal John Harrison, who co-wrote the revision with Associate Superintendent of Instructional Services Kathy Morrison, were designed “to streamline the process.”

“Basically, the changes are two-fold. The heart and soul of the policy doesn’t change much,” Harrison said. “In summary, we streamlined the process of approval of off-campus courses to make it more efficient for parents and kids. The other big change is that we accept credit, but grades aren’t calculated into the students’ high school GPA.”

The latter detail, however, has parents up in arms. Although their children may still seek to improve their education outside MIHS, the fruits of this labor will not be redeemed under the MIHS seal — a fact that gave the previous policy an alluring draw.

“Here’s my child that works hard off campus and gets an ‘A,’ and this ‘A’ will go into his GPA. Now this is a pretty nice deal,” Harrison said.

Yet it is not within MIHS jurisdiction to determine whether that “A” is the same as an “A” obtained at the high school, the principal pointed out. Thus, the reason for the policy’s revision.

“We concluded that it’s not appropriate for us to judge the quality, rigor and educational experience gained in an institution that’s not us,” Harrison explained. “When we accept a grade, we are making that judgment. We shouldn’t be in the business of making that judgement. The institution that grants that grade should be the judge.”

Yet there is a bigger issue at play: the quality of Mercer Island High School’s math program. Although it has been a curricular focus for years now, administrators are still brainstorming ways to improve how math is taught to Island high-schoolers. The second item on last week’s School Board agenda, for example, was a math policy change that replaces TerraNova testing with ITBS testing, which “looks at each grade level as students move through the math program.”

“I am committed to getting to the root problems that cause so many parents to seek off-campus classes,” Plano said. “I’m working with John Harrison and he’s working with staff to improve the quality of learning experiences for all students.”

The School Board will not be voting on the new off-campus class for credit policy, although four out of five members support the revisions. John DeVleming disagrees with the changes.

Now that Plano has heard parents’ concerns with the policy, he will revisit the issue with Harrison and Morrison, both of whom were present at the Jan. 22 board meeting, and make a final decision “in the near future.” The superintendent added that, despite the dissent expressed at last week’s meeting, he has also received a number of e-mails from parents who support the new policy.

“The most important issue is that we acknowledge and agree that sometimes student needs are best met in a smaller setting we can’t provide. We want to continue supporting students by allowing them to attend private schools,” Plano said.

The revised off-campus policy can be viewed on the district’s Web site:

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