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An Equation for Success
Keeping super-smart high school students challenged in the classroom has become a nationwide goal. Locally, one high school may have found an answer to the problem.


The Jen twins are among several Nicolet High Students learning college-level math from teacher Mike Weidner.
Photo by Sara Stathas

7:25 on a chilly December morning. Fifteen-year-old twins Annie and William Jen are sitting side by side in a Nicolet High classroom, watching a video about vector fields. A narrator discusses field flows and magnitudes, using the analogy of a green bean casserole – or, as she calls it, a “matherole.” The students chuckle, then get to work reviewing material for an upcoming test.

The Jen twins, already high school seniors despite their relative youth, are taking this college-level calculus 3 course because it’s … well, fun. “I took AP calculus two years ago,” Annie says, “and I got a 5 on it. I’d taken all the math classes to be offered, so when this one came up, I was like, ‘Yay, another math class!’ We both jumped on the opportunity to expand our mathematical knowledge.” When the spring semester rolled around, the twins (who have since reached the ripe age of 16) enrolled in linear algebra, which brought them ahead of nearly every other high school student in Wisconsin.

It’s all part of a new dual enrollment partnership between Nicolet High School and Cardinal Stritch University, neighbors who sit on opposite sides of a stretch of I-43. Nicolet is trying to keep up with its students’ ever-increasing educational thirst, says Superintendent Rick Monroe. “We’re just doing what’s natural, letting kids take courses based on their abilities. We’re not going to hold them back. We’re going to let them accelerate, and we’re going to support them.”

Nicolet already offers Advanced Placement (AP) courses – 22 of them, in fact – which give students the chance to get college credit by excelling on a test. A significant number of kids, however, still finish their requirements early – such as Tommy Schneider, a sophomore. “I just like math,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s what I want to do, but it’s applicable in a lot of areas, so I might as well just keep taking it.” Tommy also plays chess and is editor-in-chief of Amateur Knight, the school’s satiric newspaper, “Where Humor is Mandatory and Facts are Extra Credit.”

When parents became concerned about keeping their children challenged, Monroe knew he had to get creative. The state’s Youth Options program lets kids enroll in on-campus or online college courses not offered at their school – on the taxpayer’s dime – but it isn’t a perfect solution. “The mission was trying to find a college, a university, in the area that would allow us to offer the class here,” Monroe says. “From the very beginning, I did not want these kids to even have to go to Cardinal Stritch, which is right through a tunnel over here. I just thought even that would break up their day. They wouldn’t be here for school activities … play rehearsal or whatever.”

He approached both the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and UW-Oshkosh, but ran into roadblocks. UWM insisted that students taking the course pay for and receive college credit, but Monroe wanted the flexibility to include students who wanted higher-level courses but didn’t need or want to pay for college credit. UWO has been offering Cooperative Academic Partnership Program courses in Wisconsin high schools (for less than half of normal tuition costs) since 1975, including in Brookfield and Menomonee Falls. But UWO balked at offering some high-level subject matter. “They would only do calc 3,” Monroe says. “They wouldn’t offer linear algebra. They said that was too advanced.”

Monroe, who is also chair of academic and student affairs at Cardinal Stritch, found the answer he was looking for there. Stritch agreed to offer each course for four college credits (at a cost of $100) or for free with no credit. “We have all but two [the Jen twins] taking it for credit now, and those two aren’t because they know that whatever school they go to – be it Harvard or Yale or MIT – those schools will not give you [transfer] credit,” Monroe says. The UW System generally accepts dual enrollment credits; private colleges vary.

Mike Weidner, who holds one master’s degree in mathematics and another in curriculum and instruction, leads the Nicolet/Stritch classes. “He could be director of C&I for our school district if he wanted to,” Monroe says. “I’m glad he’s happy being a math teacher because he’s really special.” Cardinal Stritch gave Weidner adjunct professor status, and he got busy reviewing material he hadn’t looked at since his own college days.

“I got to relearn calculus 3,” says Weidner, who’s been with Nicolet nearly 20 years. “Parts of it made a lot of sense, parts of it I really had to relearn.”

The challenge, along with relearning material, is keeping these super-smart kids intellectually stimulated – and the need is increasing. Weidner’s fall calculus 3 class had 12 students. “This group is outstanding,” he says. “In the past, I think I’ve had two or three [students] who have been really good, at a time.”

For senior Margi Merline, this was a way to stay on top of her math skills. “I was afraid that if I took off a year from calc, I would forget it,” she says. “Then, when I had to go to college, I would have to start all over again.” Merline wants to be a biomedical engineer. She also swims and runs track at Nicolet, and she dances with the Milwaukee Ballet School.

Students like Merline can earn 30 college credits or more while still in high school. It would put them well down the path toward the 120-credit mark that’s the national standard for a degree, says Dan Scholz, Cardinal Stritch’s dean of letters and science. “You could, in theory, have a quarter of your credits done,” he says. “That’s a year.”

The desire to increase these concurrent enrollment opportunities is growing in national popularity. Cynthia Marino, associate vice president of alumni and community relations at Cardinal Stritch, recently attended a national conference for the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. “I was absolutely astounded at the number of universities and the number of states that were enrolled,” she says. “This is a pretty big push nationally right now ... for those really top-notch kids who might be interested in attending Stanford or other similar universities.”

Closer to home, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Special Committee on Improving Educational Opportunities in High School has been examining the needs of Wisconsin students and the state’s employers. What’s emerged is a much different picture of what’s needed – help on a more basic level. That includes increasing math and science requirements as well as, starting in 2018, developing individualized long-term academic and career plans as early as sixth grade. As for Youth Options? A pending bill would require students to present their school board with an explanation about how a Youth Options course would fit their career plan, and the board would then decide whether to fund the course.

Other committee recommendations include more assessments and a variety of programs designed to promote partnerships among high schools and Wisconsin employers.

“If I understand where Gov. Walker is going with this,” Scholz says, “he wants to reallocate education funding, targeting it to careers and disciplines. So math and science are huge. I think it has a lot of potential.”

But the new math and science requirements and more frequent assessments won’t affect high-achieving public school students such as those in Weidner’s calculus 3 class. They’re far beyond needing them. Career plans could prove to be advantageous, but Youth Options choices may be limited because of them.

Moreover, apart from the pending legislation, a higher number of Wisconsin’s teens may soon be able to take advantage of college courses in their own classrooms. Beginning in fall 2013, the UW System will offer dual enrollment across all campuses, opening the door to new partnerships with area high schools.

For Nicolet, its one-school, one-university venture allows extreme flexibility in structure, providing courses as necessary. “I think this will turn out to be a successful pilot project,” Scholz says, “and I think we’ll probably try to expand it into science and languages. My hope would be that we get this right with Nicolet … and eventually create a model that can be adaptable to other high schools.”

The Jen twins are in favor of the plan. “Even if it’s a small class, it’s still worth it for those who can do it,” says William, who’s applied to several collegiate engineering programs. “I see a few paths for me. I could get my Ph.D., or I could go out into the world as an engineer and try to get a contract with NASA, or maybe some major aerospace company.”

Annie, one of five Nicolet students who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT this academic year, is hoping to go to Yale and become an obstetrician. For now, she’ll finish up linear algebra. For fun.

 

“It’s been a great challenge,” she says. “And I like challenges.”


This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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