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Pathways expo

Students at an expo in December at Alliant Energy Center check out information about Exact Sciences, one of the companies working with the Madison School District on the health services pathway planned for this fall at the district's four main high schools.

A total of 518 Madison eighth-graders have applied to be part of the new “Personalized Pathways” initiative when it begins being phased in this fall at the freshman level at all four of the city’s main high schools, according to numbers released by the Madison School District.

District officials called the level of interest strong but not unexpected, saying young people had for years been telling them they wanted something different from their high school experiences.

The initiative is intended to give students insight into college and career options and to connect coursework more directly to the real world. It’s been met with both enthusiasm and skepticism from parents and students.

Only one pathway, in health services, will be available at each high school the first year, and only to freshmen.

Due to space limits, lotteries will be needed at East and La Follette high schools to select which students get in, the district said. All students who applied at Memorial and West will be accepted. Memorial and West are larger schools, and smaller percentages of their incoming freshman classes were interested in taking part.

Lottery students will be notified of the outcome no later than Monday, the district said. The lotteries will be straightforward, not weighted by demographics or other factors, so each student will have an equal chance, said Alex Fralin, who oversees middle and high schools for the district.

Personal Pathways students

Breakdown of first cohort of students accepted into the Madison School District's health services pathway.

The applicants skewed 56 percent female to 44 percent male, while the district’s student body overall is 51 percent male and 49 percent female. Racial minorities were represented at percentages higher than in the district’s overall demographics, especially those identifying as Hispanic or Latino. Nearly 40 percent of the applicants are English Language Learners, meaning they come from a multilingual or non-English-speaking family and need language support.

Interest varies by school

Administrators initially said they would aim for 120 to 150 students in the first pathway at each high school, with some variance depending on the size of each freshman class.

The breakdown by high school:

  • East received 144 applications and will run five Pathways sections with a total of 125 students. Students not selected in the lottery will be placed on a wait list. The school is projected to have 430 freshmen in 2017-18, so about 33 percent of the incoming class applied.
  • La Follette received 132 applications and will run four sections with a total of 112 students. Students not selected in the lottery will be placed on a wait list. About 34 percent of its projected freshman class of 392 applied.
  • West received 130 applications and will run five sections, accepting all applicants. About 26 percent of its projected freshman class of 496 applied.
  • Memorial received 112 applications and will run four sections, accepting all applicants. About 24 percent of its incoming freshman class of 471 applied.

“Overall, we’re very excited about these numbers,” Fralin said. “Specifically, we’re excited about the diversity that’s represented in this first cohort. We worked very hard to engage as many families and students as possible, and we think these numbers reflect that.”

Students in focus groups have been very clear about the kind of experiences they want in high school, Fralin said.

“They didn’t want the textbook to drive the learning,” he said. “They wanted to be exposed to learning outside the classroom.”

With Pathways, students will be able to begin exploring college and career options while learning more about their passions and how they learn best, according to the district. Key components include small learning clusters, rigorous and linked courses, academic and career planning, support tailored to a student’s needs and real-world learning opportunities through community partnerships.

Beginning in late November, all 1,718 district eighth-graders were invited to apply for this first Pathways group. Additionally, eighth-graders who are currently home-schooled or in private schools were invited to apply if they plan to attend a Madison public high school in the fall.

The original application deadline was Jan 6. District officials extended it to last Friday, saying they wanted to give parents and students a little more time after the winter break to get their questions answered about the initiative.

‘Hard decision’

The initiative has the potential to eventually restructure the high school experience for all students. If fully built out in the years ahead, all high school freshmen eventually could be required to choose from one of multiple pathways. A decision on whether to move toward full implementation is expected sometime midway through the second year.

Some parents have been deeply skeptical about the concept, unconvinced the district can pull off such a major restructuring or fearful that the initiative might destroy what’s already working for most district students. Others welcomed the change.

“I think it could help a lot of kids get more involved in their futures and interested in more careers, rather than just getting a job,” said parent Amber Bey.

Her daughter, Rhyan Buchert, an eighth-grader at Wright Middle School, has for several years been interested in becoming a veterinarian. Buchert is among those who have applied for the pathway at East High School.

“The main thing for me is that it’s about medicine, because that’s an area I really want to learn about,” Rhyan said. She said her two closest friends also applied.

Renae Malone said her daughter, Mercedes Cannady, an eighth-grader at Sennett Middle School, applied for the health services pathway at La Follette and is eagerly awaiting word if she gets in. Mercedes is quite sure she wants to be in the nursing field but is uncertain exactly what direction to go, said her mother, a certified nursing assistant.

“This gives children an opportunity to experience a range of work situations,” Malone said.

Pawan Baral, an eighth-grader at Wright Middle School who will attend West this fall, said he was on the bubble for weeks but ultimately chose not to apply. He hopes to be a zoologist.

“It was sort of a hard decision, but I decided not to apply because I think it would take too much time away from other classes I want to take,” he said.

Miriam Coates, an eighth-grader at O’Keeffe Middle School, also chose not to apply. She had attended a large Pathways expo at Alliant Energy Center in early December, curious about the concept.

But when she learned that health services was the only pathway available, she decided it wasn’t for her. She hopes to turn her love of drawing into a career in multimedia.

“I think it’s a brilliant concept for people actually interested in health and sciences, but that’s not my forte,” she said.