Important information finally flowing to families / Joe Nathan’s Column

This column originally appeared at on January 30, 2014


Jennifer and Khalique at school board 21


Important decisions were made in the last week.  Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius and a number of local superintendents have decided it’s time for thousands of Minnesota families and students to have better information about some key education opportunities.

Last week the Minnesota Department of Education posted a revised, updated and very helpful set of materials about Postsecondary Enrollment Options here:

PSEO responds to challenges students face regarding college costs and college readiness. Over the last several months, I’ve cited research and experience showing that high school students who take “Dual (high school/college) Credit” classes are more likely to graduate from high school, enter a one-, two- or four-year higher education program and graduate from some form of higher education.

Minnesota has been one of the nation’s leaders in this area since 1985, when PSEO was proposed by the now late Gov. Rudy Perpich and approved (on a bipartisan basis, with help from former Gov. Al Quie and State Rep. Connie Levi) by the state Legislature. Many Minnesota high schools responded to PSEO by creating new Dual Credit courses, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, College in Schools and Project Lead the Way.

Up until 2012, PSEO allowed 11th and 12th graders to take courses on college campuses, full or part time, with state funds following students, paying all tuition and book fees. In 2012, the law was expanded to allow 10th graders to participate. Since fall, 2012, sophomores who had passed the state’s eighth grade reading test have been allowed to take one career technical course, and if they earned a “C” or higher, they could take additional courses. Also, some colleges developed online PSEO courses, and the Legislature allocated funds to help students from low-income families pay for transportation to PSEO classes.

Unfortunately, many youngsters, families and some educators did not know about the 10th grade option, the online PSEO courses and the transportation funds available. Over the last two months, I’ve looked at registration materials on more than 60 Minnesota high school websites. Less than 10 percent had information about the 10th grade option, and even fewer had information about online courses and transportation assistance.

Marisa Gustafson, with the Center for School Change, and I discussed this with MDE officials. They pointed out that the department held meetings around Minnesota last fall to discuss dual credit programs. More than 700 educators attended.

But meeting attendance often did not translate into information in registration materials. So, Commissioner Cassellius arranged for more comprehensive materials to be posted at the website referenced earlier.

Over the last three weeks, I contacted superintendents in about 40 districts, asking them to review materials they share with students. I acknowledged that they may be distributing information that’s not on their website. More than 80 percent of those superintendents responded favorably. Those districts either have revised materials or are in the process of revising materials to meet state law’s requirement that information be shared with students by March 1. For example:

Caledonia Superintendent Ben Barton wrote, “The only correspondence from MDE that I am aware of is a recently sent Superintendent update that had information regarding the 10th grade PSEO embedded in it. Our registration manual has already been disseminated to students to prepare for registration. We will need to provide an addendum to this and make students aware prior to the mandated March 1st date.”

Bloomington Superintendent Les Fujitake wrote, “Thank you for bringing all this to our attention. Not complying with the dissemination and notification requirements were oversights. JHS and KHS online registration guides will be updated with 10th grade PSEO information or links to 10th grade PSEO information by Jan 28. JHS’ and KHS’ hard copy registration guides have already been published; therefore, 9th grade students will receive additional information on 10th grade PSEO from one of their teachers. Our counselors will provide our 8th grade students with the same information received by our 9th graders.

Forest Lake High School Principal Steve Massey wrote, “We will be making the necessary changes to the registration guide to reflect the 10th grade option.

“As you can see in our online and interactive registration guide, we place a significant emphasis on college readiness. Over the years, we have built an Advanced Placement and College in the Schools program wrapped around our mission which is: ‘To ensure that all students graduate with the skills necessary to attend any college, university, technical college, or training program – and succeed.’ While PSEO has been, and will continue to be, a fitting program for some students, our comprehensive AP and CIS options enable students to earn significant college credit without leaving the high school. We believe that our comprehensive elective program, rooted in a college and career readiness program (See our career cluster wheel at:–2011.pdf), further prepares students for college and careers. In addition to our AP and CIS program, many of our courses are articulated with local community and technical colleges. In fact, we have recently joined efforts with Pine Technical College to create a concurrent enrollment program with our Health Care Careers program that grants 7 college credits and we are in discussion with PTC to create a similar concurrent enrollment program with our Emergency Medical Responder and Emergency Medical Technician program.

“We believe that students can have a blended high school and college experience without leaving the high school campus. We have many students who earn up to a full-year of college or more without ever leaving our campus. That said, we counsel students who are interested in PSEO through the enrollment process and we work together with colleges to transition credits for graduation.

PSEO is an excellent program for the right student.”

Pierz Superintendent George Weber wrote, in part, “Thank you for the information and follow up. I met with our Guidance Counselor and went over some of the questions. The 2013-14 Registration Manual does contain more information about PSEO and CIS courses as well as the process for accessing those courses.

“We have provided that document directly to all students and all parents. We found more response when we gave them out directly than just saying it was on the website, although the latest version not being on the webpage is an oversight. We will also update our website with the new one.

“(We have) a new Checklist developed by our Guidance Counselor for the College Classes.

“Pierz has been a proponent of College Courses for many years; long before it got the attention it is getting now. We currently offer around 20 different College Courses in almost every discipline: Theater, Phy Ed., Math, Science, English, Social Studies, Business and Vocational Courses.

“Pierz has also been using ITV instruction to provide PSEO courses for more than 15 years. So for the most part, our students and parents are quite used to the idea of taking college courses during the high school day.”

He continued, “We try to work with the students to make sure they are prepared for the rigor and more importantly the independence required to be successful in a college course. There is often a general difference between the degree of attention and follow up that high school teachers provide for each of their students compared to the world of college professors. This is one of the biggest transitions for students to make when the venture into the world of PSEO.

“It is truly amazing the options that are now available to students. It is a great time to be a high school student and gain a strong foothold into college through these opportunities.”

Shelly Landry of Minneapolis Public Schools responded, in part, “All high school websites will be updated with information by February 14th. PSEO is in the presentations and other materials about course options. It is usually not on the course selection sheets because counselors want to know what courses the student would want to take at the school in case PSEO does not work out. Creating a full schedule for students and then adjusting if a student does end up taking PSEO is less complicated than building a partial schedule and trying to schedule the classes students want or need at a later date.”

Landry continued, “MPS counselors were informed of this law when it was initially approved and are reminded annually that they must inform all students of dual credit options, including PSEO, by March 1. We have asked all counselors to include this information as part of the required My Life Plan milestone, ‘Academic Plan’. This milestone helps students plan their future educational plan (courses, experiences, goals) to work towards graduation and their post-secondary goals. Counselors connect with students at this time to ensure student plans are helping them progress toward graduation and prepare them for college and career. In the past few years,

MPS counselors have used a publication by the MN Department of Education, ‘Dual Credit Options’  to inform students of the benefits and challenges of PSEO and other dual credit options, such as College In the Schools and Advanced Placement. We will reach out to the Minnesota Department of Education again this year to see if this publication is available.”

Matthew Mohs, chief academic officer for St. Paul Public Schools, wrote in part, via email, “Thanks for the ongoing questions. You have raised some good points that have led us to revisit the information we provide to our students and families. Currently, our system for informing families on PSEO has largely been handled by our schools. We appreciate the clarifications that you have provided and we will continue to adjust the information on the website.”

He continued, “To be clear – SPPS will have accurate information about PSEO, the 10th grade option, and the supporting resources, available on school web sites and the district web site. This is one of the main vehicles for informing families about the options. We will also include information about the possibility of online options and transportation reimbursement.

“We are looking at other forms of dissemination, but the course catalog is not an option for this year. There are other methods by which we can help schools spread the message, including reinforcing the message and information with counselors. As I said, the course catalog will be adjusted next year in relation to PSEO options and providing consistent language across all catalogs. Our focus this year was on the core courses and consistency in offerings, which has required a significant amount of work across the high schools. The information on our website will be fully compliant with state law by the March 1 deadline of this year, and likely much sooner.”

Minnetonka Superintendent Dennis Patterson wrote, in part, “I realize you have a special interest in this expansion of PSEO to Tenth Grade. It is mixing very young high school students on college campuses with much older students, but parents can determine if they want that to happen. It is also taking students from strong high school programs where students can usually get high quality courses and placing them in colleges for some less than stellar courses. Virtually none of the college courses taken by our high school students are close to the quality of courses offered at our high school through IB, AP and Vantage.

“…This year’s parent meeting will be in February and will cover the opportunity for PSEO. You can see that on our Web site. We will be sending the Skipper Log of all course opportunities to Students on their iPads in a couple weeks.

“I have not seen any encouragement from MDE for students to take this route. All of this information will be included with the Skipper Log distribution. We will also be informing students and their parents in lower grades about these ‘opportunities.’ Thanks for the Website information.”

Anoka Hennepin Communications and Public Relations Director Mary Olson wrote, “We have tentatively agreed to put the following statement on our website:

“Some grade 10 students may be eligible to take post-secondary Career and Technical course (CTE) at a postsecondary institution at no cost through the Post Secondary Educational Options (PSEO) program. If you are interested, please discuss this with your counselor to see if you qualify and if this would be a good option for you,” Olson continued.

“We plan to communicate with teachers throughout the district, since our research shows that the number one influence on student decisions is teacher recommendation.” Olson continued, “According to Jessica Lipa of our Secondary Technical Education Program (STEP), we do advertise the grade 10 option on documents related to concurrent enrollment. These are documents students get at registration time. She said very few students statewide are taking advantage of this, not because districts aren’t publicizing it but because students have found that it is not a very practical option.

There are logistical drawbacks with scheduling, timing and transportation. While economically disadvantaged students would be eligible for mileage reimbursement, most 10th graders don’t drive. Because of STEP she believes there may be more flexibility at Anoka Technical College, though currently STEP is for juniors and seniors (and it’s full).

    “Also, in conversations with parent, she has found they have concerns that their 10th graders are not mature enough to handle a course at a postsecondary institution and that it may be too rigorous.”

These concerns are real. PSEO, whether for 10th, 11th or 12th graders is an option. But while some families don’t want their youngsters to participate, I’ve heard from other parents, who do want their children to participate and are having difficulty obtaining information. Thanks to state and district officials, more accurate information is going to be available.

Wise families will review PSEO along with other dual credit options, considering the advantages and disadvantages of each. Conversations over the last two months make clear that whether it’s the commissioner of education or district staff, there is a widespread commitment to helping more young people be better prepared, and more able to afford some form of higher education.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome,
please comment below.