After a month of much discussion and debate, the District 202 School Board voted unanimously at its March 10 meeting to eliminate the regular level of the Freshman Humanities course next year, a move intended to “increase the rigor in Humanities classes, thus increasing the number of students, especially students of color, who can meet the more difficult requirements for honors credit.”
The plan will result in three levels of Freshman Humanities: straight honors, mixed and enriched. Mixed-level classes have been taught in some form at Evanston Township High School “for at least two decades” according to the administration. As a result, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon characterized the proposal as “rather modest.”
“Nonetheless,” he said, “I think it’s a very important proposal … We want to get students on a pathway to taking full advantage of all the academic opportunities we have here at this school.”
Modest or not, the proposal engendered significant discussion in a variety of venues in the month since it was first presented to the Board. Two Board meetings prior to March 10 and a “community conversation” meeting attended by about 200 people saw a wide range of opinions expressed by students, parents, teachers and community members.
Most of the sentiment expressed at the meetings was supportive of the proposal, although some people were concerned about the rapidity of implementation and others felt it did not go far enough to eliminate the academic stratification and racial separation that has persisted for years at ETHS.
Further public comment was also presented at the Board meeting just prior to the vote, primarily from students, all African-Americans.
“We hope … your decisions are not wholly based on your need to raise the AYP [adequate yearly progress] for your sakes but to ensure and sustain equality in the Evanston community for all of us,” said senior Donnell Knighten Jr., referring to the fact that one of the justifications for the rapid implementation of the change was to avoid potential sanctions by the State of Illinois under the No Child Left Behind Act. ETHS has not made AYP for five years, requiring a restructuring plan to be instituted.
Rachel Sanni, a junior, implored the Board and the administration to make more of an effort to connect emotionally to students. “Students need to know why they’re being asked to achieve,” she told the RoundTable later. “There has to be some kind of motivation.” She suggested that many struggling students did not get that kind of support at home and that part of the problem “lies within District 65. They are our feeder schools.”
“This proposal isn’t just about adequate yearly progress and No Child Left Behind,” said Board Vice President Rachel Hayman. “It’s about helping our students achieve in as supportive an environment as possible and to be exposed to the highest level of achievement possible.”
“We have not done well by our students of color,” said Board member Omar Khuri. “I graduated in 1985 [from ETHS], and the situation was the same then as it is now. [But] this Board and this administration are not afraid to admit that failure and to admit responsibility for it.”
He continued by stating that expectations would be high for all students. “The way we view education now is not about numbers, it’s about you. It’s about each and every student. There are more things coming down the pipeline. If you are successful at … the mixed classes … there will be more challenges.”
As have others during recent discussions, senior Camaree Tamron suggested that the proposal did not go far enough. “Tracking limits and segregates our diverse school environment and puts some students on a pedestal for being able to take a test better than others,” she said.
“I advocate for … eliminating straight honors classes …,” said English teacher Fred Schenck. “In my 15 years here, one thing has become more and more painfully clear each day. This building privileges a certain group of people and that privilege drives the decisions here.”
Board member Jane Colleton also questioned the need for the straight honors level. She suggested that there will be few, if any, minority students in those classes (as has been true in the past) and that the white students in the classes “will not have any exposure to (minority students) in the humanities. I’m uncomfortable with that.”
Dr. Witherspoon responded that although the current proposal was only addressing the elimination of the stand-alone regular-level class in Freshman Humanities, “that would not preclude if the Board wanted to see future proposals … about straight honors.”
“If this step … encourages more students to achieve at higher levels,” said Ms. Hayman, “I think that this board should listen to a proposal … that perhaps straight honors classes in humanities aren’t necessary.”
Senior Jared Frye critiqued the Freshman Humanities Curriculum. “We are taught a one-sided history which degrades us and promises very [few] signs of hope,” he said.
Ms. Tamron agreed.
“[With] the exception of “A Raisin in the Sun,” I did not read books or learn history that connected to my ancestry,” she said.
Student Board member Aon Hussain asked “how will the curriculum be changed to make sure that African-Americans and Latinos can relate to what they are being taught?”
“There’s going to be a review of what we currently do. You’d think we’d already have that built in. In some cases we do. In some cases we don’t,” said Dr. Witherspoon.
Some students, along with Mr. Schenck, suggested that there should be more discussion of the proposal before implementation.
“I advocate … for slowing the process down to allow for community-wide conversation,” Mr. Schenck said. He characterized the “Community Conversation” held on Feb. 27 and attended by more than 200 people to be “just a policy presentation.”
Mr. Knighten agreed. “We ask that you postpone this decision until further community involvement is established.”
“We don’t have time to wait. I’ve just run out of patience,” said Board member Mary Wilkerson. “I’m embarrassed. I think this high school could be one of the best high schools in the country. We put it [the proposal] in place, we tweak it … You come to the Board meetings and talk with us about what’s not working so we can go and try to fix it.”
“We’re not rushing blindly into something that is … completely radical, brand-new,” said Mr. Khuri. “Mixed classes have been around for decades … As far as slowing down, we’ve been asleep for 20 years. There is no point in slowing down. That doesn’t mean we’re rushing off the cliff. We will make sure we know how to swim.”