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The regular level of the Freshman Humanities program at Evanston Township High School will be eliminated next year as “a way of moving students into more rigorous classes,” Superintendent Eric Witherspoon told the District 202 School Board and a room atypically packed with parents, teachers and community members on Feb. 11.

“Next year, we will offer straight honors, mixed honors/regular and enriched levels of humanities at the freshman level,” Dr. Witherspoon said. “We are raising expectations and putting more rigor and support for children in this District. Every one of us must believe in that.”

The New Plan

Under the new plan, incoming freshmen who score at or above the 95th percentile on either the EXPLORE or MAP tests, along with teacher and principal recommendations, will be placed in the straight honors classes. This approach is projected to identify about 20 percent of all freshmen to be assigned to straight honors, said Dr. Witherspoon. “This means that there will be more students in straight honors next year than are enrolled in those classes this year,” he reported.

At the other end of the spectrum, students testing below the 40th percentile on the nationally normed tests, equating to 14 percent of the class, will take Freshman Humanities Enriched. This course is described in the ETHS Program Planning Handbook as including “academic support for freshmen who are below grade level in reading and writing skills. Instruction in the English and history content areas includes explicit literacy strategies embedded into the curriculum.”

The remaining 65 percent of freshmen will be assigned to mixed-level classes that will offer students the opportunity to sign up for honors or regular credit based on their scores “from the EXPLORE and MAP tests, teacher and principal recommendations,” Dr. Witherspoon reported.

At all levels, parental input into placement decisions, which Dr. Witherspoon confirmed “has a long history here at ETHS”, would continue to be considered “as we have done in previous years.”

Dr. Witherspoon cited two reasons for the change: restructuring ETHS as a result of state sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and addressing persistently low levels of minority students in honors-level classes. Last December, the School Board approved eight initiatives that will form the basis of the NCLB restructuring plan. “We have to file the restructuring plan by the end of April,” said Dr. Witherspoon, indicating the urgency underlying the proposal.

One of the initiatives was “developing strategies for moving students into more challenging classes and scheduling more students into honors classes with the goal of having more minority students in honors classes next year.”

Parent/Teacher Reaction

The vast majority of speakers during public comment supported the idea of a more inclusive academic environment at ETHS. Some even advocated getting rid of tracking altogether.

“When you maintain an honors track that is mostly white, a mixed track, and an enriched track that is mostly minority students, you reinforce the idea of social inequity,” said Nancy Baker, parent and former ETHS English teacher.

ETHS history teacher Makoto Ogura concurred. “If we are to have the sense of social justice that we believe in in this school, if we are to have democracy in this school, then we have to detrack these classes.”

Other speakers argued for the preservation of separate honors-level classes, and still others expressed concern about a potential lack of focus on students in the enriched level.

However, whatever their views on what the end result should be, many speakers complained that the proposal had been brought to the Board before being discussed with groups such as the PTSA or the School Improvement Team or involving parents and teachers in other ways.

“Community input is critical, and buy-in among the community is essential to the success of any program that involves changes at the high school,” said Deborah Graham, member of the ETHS PTSA Board. “Established … parent groups … received no notification of this. I don’t know if the School Improvement Team is even aware of the current proposal.”

Candace Davis, co-chair of the PTSA agreed. “You need to ask the community for support, and you need to put it out there and let everybody talk about it,” she said. “We just want to be a part of it.”

“We are disappointed about the lack of teacher input,” said history teacher and Teachers Council representative Kevin McCaffrey. “We teachers feel we have been shut out, and we are unhappy with that.”

Dr. Witherspoon responded to concerns about the process. “This implementation plan only emerged in the past . . . three weeks. As soon as a plan emerged, discussions began immediately with the faculty. The president and the vice-president of the Board said that we had to get it immediately on the next agenda, explain it to the Board and we will have meetings with staff and in the community. There’s still a lot of detail to hang on this plan to have it come to fruition.”

The Timeframe

Another area of discussion dealt with the time frame proposed to implement the program.

“When neighboring high school administrators were interviewed by us, they estimated that it takes at least 18 months to effectively develop a small team of teachers in differentiated instruction,” said Nancy Baker, former ETHS English teacher. “We have four months. It cannot be enough time.”

Ed Zwirner, Evanston resident and New Trier English teacher said a “successful detracking plan has usually has a three-year time frame, where you begin by engaging the community. The second phase is . . . staff development that lasts for over a year and… also renorming and redesigning all of your assessments in the Freshman Humanities curriculum.”

Parent Ava Greenwell differed in her sense of urgency. “I know there needs to be a plan. It’s important that we have more students of color in honors. Let’s not continue to sit on the sidelines and let our children languish.”

“I can’t believe that fair educational opportunities for all students are not wanted immediately by every parent and teacher in this room tonight,” said parent Candace Buggs. “I support this proposal and can’t wait to see the positive results that come from the next step in helping minority students become more successful at ETHS.”

Community leader Bennett Johnson recalled a piece of instructive history from 1955, when scholar and activist W. E. B. Dubois was invited to speak at UCLA. “One of the professors asked Dr. Dubois how long he thought the South should be given to integrate the schools. Dr. Dubois looked up and said, ‘About two weeks.’”

“This is not a new discussion,” said Dr. Witherspoon. “We have spent the whole fall [in Board meetings] debating questions about what’s the best way to identify students for placement in classes. I publicly pledged . . . that we would be implementing strategies by next fall to get more students in more rigorous classes and in more honors. We had detailed discussion about restructuring. We’ve also talked about the urgency for our children. Every day we wait, another class comes and goes and nothing changes.”

Some parents questioned whether or not enough teachers would be sufficiently prepared to teach in the new environment.

“I don’t believe teachers will be ready for this change,” said parent Linda Slavick. “We parents need to know what teacher training has been done and, especially, what the future plans are for this training for teachers.”

ETHS history teacher Kevin Barry commented about how he approaches teaching mixed-level classes. “When I started, I asked Mr. (William) Branch (former ETHS principal) who I should be teaching. He said ‘You teach to the smartest kid in that class, and everybody else has to keep up.’ I’ve tried to do that, and the kids are fine with that. I’d encourage people to visit some classrooms.”

Department chairs Jennifer Fisher (History) and Judith Ruhana (English) responded confidently to questions about teacher readiness.

Ms. Fisher said history department teachers have experience teaching mixed levels because, except for Freshman Humanities, “most courses in the history department are mixed-level” and for the most part, “most teachers teach multiple levels in the classroom.”

“This is not a lonely task of one teacher,” said Ms. Ruhana. “This is an entire system being geared up to meet the needs of children who deserve the same chance as other children. . . . I have a critical mass of teachers who are ready to do this.”

Next Step

Although originally the Board was scheduled to take action on the proposal at its next meeting, Feb. 25, Board members agreed to delay putting it on the action agenda until March 10 to allow for more community discussion. The Board will discuss the proposal again on Feb. 25, and Dr. Witherspoon committed to schedule other community discussions of the topic.