A respectful exchange of strongly held opinions on challenging subjects took place on Feb. 27 during a “Community Conversation” about the proposed changes to the Freshman Humanities program at Evanston Township High School.
The gathering, which drew a crowd of about 200 parents, teachers, students and community leaders to the ETHS auditorium, was organized by the administration in an effort to further explain and get feedback on the proposal, which has already been debated at some length at two Board meetings and in a variety of other venues.
Under the new system, the regular level of the Freshman Humanities class will be eliminated, leaving three levels: straight honors, mixed and enriched.
The proposal’s focus is to “increase the rigor in next year’s Humanities classes, thus increasing the number of students, especially students of color, who can meet the more difficult requirements for honors credit,” according to ETHS administors. Minority students at ETHS have historically been underrepresented in honors level classes and overrepresented in regular level classes, so the proposal will provide more opportunity for academic diversity in the classroom as well as more racial integration, they said.
Some people applauded the value of racially diverse classrooms to enhance the educational experience. “I was challenged, I had great discussions, because the class was so diverse,” said one student of her mixed-level Freshman Humanities course. “When I went to my sophomore honors class . . . we read some really powerful books, and the conversation was so limited because the majority of the class was white.”
Jerane Ransom said her son had been the only black student in his honors-level class, which was “difficult,” but that what made mixed classes good for her daughter was “the diversity, the conversation.”
On the other hand, another student told of her more negative experience in mixed-ability classes, “where the discussions were less in-depth than in an honors class” and where the academic demands were “regular, with extra homework for me [taking honors credit].”
Numerous people described their experiences with the realities of teaching a wide range of student capabilities in one classroom. Some saw that as a problem; others, as a challenging but positive part of the job.
“I deal constantly with an enormous range of talents,” said Larry Marks, adjunct professor of psychology at Oakton Community College. “It is the single most difficult aspect of teaching. I’m going to bore the hell out of my top students, or I’m going to lose my low-end students.”
Rich Kaplan, ETHS math teacher, agreed that “teachers will have to work twice as hard … It’s not easy. … but I think that’s why a lot of teachers came to ETHS, because we want to teach diverse, integrated groups of kids. … I think we should be hopeful.”
Pace of Implementation
Parent Richard Sandler said he thought, “This is a big move in a short period of time” and suggested that perhaps “a pilot program” might be instituted.
Superintendent Eric Witherspoon pointed out that mixed classes have been taught at ETHS “for over 20 years,” and several teachers and administrators reported their long experience with teaching mixed classes.
“This is a very small step,” said Jennifer Fisher, History Department Chair. “Every class in the history department, with the exception of AP classes, is mixed level.”
“Every single class we teach is a mixed level,” said Judith Ruhana, English Department Chair. “There’s no such thing as a straight anything. A good teacher teaches every student in his or her classroom.”
Just a Beginning?
Several speakers suggested the proposal did not go far enough. “I am actually in opposition to there being an upper echelon of 5 percent,” said English teacher Hilda Raisner. Others questioned whether being in a straight honors class meant a higher level of achievement.
“Some of them are there because they did a great job on the EXPLORE test,” said Ms. Ruhana, referring to some straight honors class students. “They never do homework and they never open their mouth and they contribute nothing to the class. So what is that?”
Need to Ensure Support
History teacher Chala Holland emphasized the need to provide adequate support for students who may have been disadvantaged by the educational system in the past. “Equality doesn’t come from placing kids in honors,” she said. “We need to own and take responsibility to make sure that all students who move to honors have the tools that it takes to be successful at that level.”
Paula Frohman, Media and Instructional Technology Services Department chair and former history teacher, outlined the resources that will be available to students taking on the challenge of honors credit in Freshman Humanities.
“The stars are aligned. We have an entire school with the System of Supports. … The different support programs (STAE, AVID, Project Excel) … a commitment to resources to make this happen. … Class size will be 21-24. Two teachers will teach at the same time for 80 minutes.”
Talking About Race and Community
“There’s a conversation about race that really needs to happen,” said ETHS history teacher Makota Ogura, summarizing much of the undercurrent of the meeting. “I’m listening to that in the ways that people are talking.”
“Very powerful comments tonight,” said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, visibly moved by the range and nature of the evening’s discourse. “A small step like this needs to open the door to a deeper conversation and examining who we are as a community and what we can truly become. Because as great as we are, I think we heard enough in the room tonight . . . that we can do a lot better. This is what makes a community stronger, and this is what will make a stronger school for our children.”
The District 202 School Board will vote on the proposal at its meeting on March 10.
Freshman Humanities Proposal Facts and Figures
The Freshman Humanities program is being revised to expose more students to rigorous work earlier in their high school career, to provide more diversity in classrooms and to comply with restructuring requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act.
The Freshman Humanities program will have three ability levels starting next fall: straight honors, mixed, enriched.
Students will be placed in a level based on their test scores (MAP and/or EXPLORE) as well as teacher and principal recommendations. Parent input will be considered in placement as well.
Students testing at the 95th percentile and above will be placed in straight honors (about 20% of ETHS students)
Students testing below the 40th percentile (about 14% of students) will be placed in the enriched level, which provides additional supports for students who are reading and writing below grade level.
The remaining 65% of freshmen will be assigned to mixed-level classes, which will offer students the opportunity to sign up for honors or regular credit based on their scores.
Many students (from the 40th percentile through the lower 80th percentile) will be assigned to different support programs (Project Excel, AVID, STAE) based on their testing level and profile.
The additional cost to implement the program is estimated at $70,000. Approximately $45,000 will come from the Illinois Regional System of Support Providers, a state agency that provides technical assistance to schools under No Child Left Behind restructuring. In addition, ETHS budgeted over $30,000 for literacy improvement this year, much of which was a one-time expense.
There is additional information available about the program on the ETHS website: www.eths.k12.il.us/memos/communityconv/faq.pdf.