Supporters of Wasson High School say their school is much like a troubled kid who's just starting to follow a better path.
The proverbial wake-up call came in 2009, when the District 11 Board of Education told Wasson administrators to develop a four-year plan to improve its enrollment and offerings. A year later, Wasson put together a 41-page business plan and applied for, and received, state designation as a "School of Innovation."
As the only school in D-11, and just one of four high schools in the state, with that designation, it would enjoy many of the same freedoms as a charter school. Principal Darryl Bonds — who said he couldn't comment for this story — was to take unusual authority over hiring, firing, programs and hours in his school. Overarching goals would be to "provide a rigorous, high-achievement learning environment for all students" and to "support our teachers in becoming continual, explorative learners and outstanding non-traditional educators."
At least, that was the way it was supposed to work.
Instead, school sources say, Bonds was reined in. They claim:
• he wanted to ask all his teachers to reapply for their jobs, but D-11 said no;
• he wanted to interview new teachers in February and March, around the same time other districts do their hiring, but the district made him wait until the summer months, when many top teachers already have been hired;
• and he wanted to hire nontraditional teachers who were experts in their field, but the district apparently frowned on that, even questioning the hire of a dance teacher who had previously worked at the college level.
Asked about those claims, Gledich says simply that academics weren't the problem at Wasson, enrollment was. But others argue the two are connected.
"I think [the lack of control over hiring and firing] hurt the program," says Wasson PTA president Fred Crofford, the father of a junior at the school. "... What he was actually getting was teachers who weren't renewed or weren't tenured."
Bonds did, however, change academic standards and add new courses/instruction in dance, the visual arts, math, social studies, law, and science. He used tutoring to effectively extend the school day and the school year, implement a policy that a passing grade was a "C" or higher. He hired a dedicated college and career counselor, and designated four of his more experienced teachers as "master's teachers," high-level educators who mentored others.
If the numbers are any guide, the changes have made a difference. From the 2009-10 school year to 2011-12, Wasson's graduation rate soared from 65.3 percent to 72.4 percent, beating the D-11 average of 67 percent, and nearly meeting the state average of 75.4 percent. In 2012, students were admitted to prestigious universities such as Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, and the school boasted recipients of Daniels Fund and Boettcher Foundation scholarships.
All of this was especially impressive because Wasson serves a relatively low-income population — 65 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — and is also home to many special education students.
But one particularly persuasive number has been less promising: District figures show enrollment has continued to drop steadily dropped, from 1,241 students in 2008 to 918 in 2012.
Supporters have often blamed those numbers on continued talks of closures, saying many parents were hesitant to enroll their kids in a school with an uncertain future. The families who did take a chance on Wasson may now see their kids' lives are uprooted at a sensitive time.
Wasson kids haven't taken the fight sitting down. On Jan. 15, students staged a walk-out protest despite threats of suspensions.
A January edition of the student newspaper described the scene this way: "With a will of fire burning deep within themselves, dozens of students, among them class representatives, staged a walk out to protest and express their school spirit by supporting their school's pride."