A’s in tough classes drop top-10 ERHS student to 25th; efforts for change gaining momentum
by Rachel Minske
Caroline Silvola knows how to shoot for the stars.
Aside from holding a part-time job, the Elk River High School junior received high marks on the ACT exam and was ranked 10th in her class.
But when the Advanced Placement classes she completed as a sophomore left her feeling a bit bored, the now 17-year-old turned to Postsecondary Enrollment Options. The academic option is primarily for high school juniors and seniors and allows them to take courses at the college level, with completed courses counting toward both college and high school credit.
She said her high school counselor seemed to have little information on PSEO, so Silvola did her own research.
She attended informational sessions at the University of Minnesota, where she aspired to enroll in classes. She knew her grades earned at the college level wouldn’t be weighted on her high school transcript, but when she was accepted to the U of M’s selective PSEO program, Silvola decided she was up for the challenge, she said.
Due to the intensity and workload of an AP level course at the high school, they’re weighted so that a 4.0 grade – or an A – appears as a 4.34 on a transcript. A 4.0 earned through PSEO in a university course remains unchanged.
“The workload is manageable, but it’s definitely a college workload,” said Silvola, who enrolled in 12 credits her first semester and 17 credits this semester. She completes a large chunk of her work on the Northstar train, her mode of transportation to and from classes.
Despite earning straight A’s in her college courses and being recognized on the dean’s list for academic achievement, Silvola’s high school ranking dropped from 10th to 25th, and that could be a problem, she said.
College admission offices pay close attention to class ranking, as do scholarship foundations and employers, said Silvola, which is why the Elk River junior and a network of other students from the Elk River Area School District are pushing for PSEO grades to be weighted, just like the AP courses.
Silvola was one of a handful of people present during an April 24 School Board meeting who encouraged the board to adopt a policy regarding weighted grades.
Silvola’s mother, Linda, has pushed for change, too. In an email sent April 24 to School Board Chair Shane Steinbrecher, she wrote the following: “Please think about this issue. PSEO students are simply looking for equal credit for equal effort. Please work with the school board and superintendent to even the playing field for students who are looking for the challenge and opportunities of becoming lifelong learners.”
Steinbrecher said he has given direction to the administration and interim Superintendent Bruce Watkins to look into the issue and anticipates it will be discussed at a work session in the near future.
Anna Dulski, a 16-year-old junior at Rogers High School, attends PSEO classes full-time at Anoka-Ramsey Community College – six classes in all. When asked if the workload was a lot, Dulski laughed and replied, “Yeah, it is.”
But the intense courses could pay off in the end; by the time she graduates from high school, Dulski will have already earned an associate degree at no cost to her. After high school graduation, she plans to continue her studies for a career in history- or anthropology-related fields.
More than a local effort
The groundswell behind the issue is also in place at the statewide level.
Joe Nathan is the director for the Center for School Change, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that works with educators, parents, policymakers and the community to increase student achievement, raise graduation rates and strengthen relationships. The center has given a grant to District 728 in the past to help establish a magnet school and Nathan has recently advocated for weighting grades earned at the PSEO level.
Nathan said there are simply some students who are looking to take on college-level work while still in high school and PSEO can offer an outlet for those students to excel and blossom.
“We’re just trying to have equity in the way students are treated,” he said.
Nathan added it’s in the best interest of students and the state of Minnesota to encourage PSEO courses as they can cut back on student debt and contribute to higher graduation rates, which make students more marketable.
Legislation relating to the issue has circulated through state bodies through the K-12 school funding bill, which includes PSEO-related provisions.
Among other requirements, the bill would require high schools to have a policy about weighting grades – including whether or not it does weight grades – and it must annually publish a list of courses that qualify for the weight on its website.
A collaborative bill from the Minnesota House and Senate will be sent to Gov. Mark Dayton for consideration.
Silvola referred to PSEO as an “amazing” opportunity for students – and one that many students appreciate.
She’s been able to take courses not offered at her high school, Silvola said.
“We put a lot of work into our classes and into our education,” she said.
The Elk River student said she plans to pursue a career in the STEM field – likely in biomedical engineering.