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District 202 representatives visited Southside High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y., to review its approach to education. That approach – offering only honors classes to a racially and economically mixed student body of about 1,100 students – has reportedly resulted in dramatic improvements in achievement for all students.

“In developing our restructuring plan to ensure that all students experience a rigorous curriculum, we have reviewed the professional literature and tapped into national networks,” reported Laura Cooper, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and Marilyn Madden, assistant superintendent/principal. “Southside High School … emerged as one of the schools that has made significant progress by ensuring that all students experience an honors level curriculum.”

Dr. Cooper and Judith Levinson, director of research, valuation and assessment, visited the school in March, followed in April by another team composed of six teachers, Ms. Madden and School Board vice president Rachel Hayman. They reported to the District 202 Board about their visits at the May 12 Board meeting.

Southside High School, with 1,138 students, is the sole high school in a K-12 district of 3,500 students. According to a September 2007 article in the publication The School Administrator, “Rockville Centre is a diverse suburban school district … Nearly 77 percent [of the students] are white and live in upper-middle-class households. About 3 percent of the students are Asian-Americans … and 20 percent are African American or Latino. Most of the district’s African-American and Latino students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. …”

According to the report, all freshmen and sophomores take honors-level classes in all subjects. No other level than honors is offered at the school. Juniors can choose to follow the Regents track, an honors-level track that prepares students to take the New York State Regents examination, or the International Baccalaureate (IB) track, “a comprehensive and challenging course of study,” similar to [advanced-placement] AP-level study. Seniors continue the track they chose in their junior year.

Rockville Centre has been working on detracking for about 20 years, said Dr. Cooper. According to The School Administrator article, “although only a handful of minority students selected IB courses when grades 9 and 10 were tracked, more than half of all African-American and Latino students are [now] taking IB English, IB History and IB Mathematics courses, and nearly a third of all minority students in the Class of 2009 are IB diploma candidates.”

“When I first saw the … outline of their courses, I was intrigued by how straightforward and simple it is,” said Julie Mallory, Evanston Township High School English teacher. “There is one course level offered to all students freshman and sophomore years in the major academic disciplines – honors level. That curriculum is grounded in the belief that all students deserve the best curriculum. This is the mantra that we heard.”

Science teacher Terri Sowa told the Board about staff development at Southside. “Staff development is very teacher-directed,” she said. “There were not a lot of outside consultants or workshops. They realize that teachers know best what they need to be successful.”

With all students taking honors level classes, support programs in the school are a critical part of the equation, according to the report. William Farmer, another science teacher, told the Board support for students at Southside includes a “zero hour,” when teachers have office hours first thing in the morning, as well as peer tutoring and support classes in specific topics for which students get grades and credit. The support classes have 8-12 students; students can register for support classes in more than one area.

English teacher Liz Hartley, who met with students from Southside, reported that younger students “came into the school knowing that the gates were going to be open for them. They were all coming in on a level playing field. Everyone was being taught equitably with rigor. As freshmen, they are coming into the school getting ready for the eleventh grade.”

History teacher D’Wayne Bates, who also met with students, reported that students at Southside said their system “gives us exposure to new knowledge that only AP and honors [students] used to get” and that it “lessens the racial and gender disparity in classrooms.”

“Something I really liked was that everyone, from the administrators on down, was on the same page with this,” said Mr. Bates. “As a teacher and a coach (I know that) the best teams are the ones when all the coaches are on the same page, teaching the same fundamentals.” He also commented that there appeared to be a lot of continuity in how students were prepared to approach each subsequent year’s work.

“What struck me during our visit was the absolute commitment expressed from all levels of staff was that their approach was the right thing to do,” said Ms. Hayman. “Everyone was singing the same song.” She summarized the lessons of the visit.

“We need to provide equality of opportunity for all students,” she said. “All students can be successfully challenged in heterogeneous classrooms. This is true as long as a rigorous honors curriculum is provided and that adequate supports are provided to both students and teachers.

“If we allow hard work, rather than test scores or recommendations, to determine opportunities for our students” Ms. Hayman continued, “that will permit students to take on a higher level of learning with ease.

“We have to keep our focus on the endgame,” she concluded. “The endgame is … are we preparing all of our students to succeed in college and the workplace?”

Board member Margaret Lurie said she had learned about the Southside program at a Minority Student Achievement Network conference some time before and asked if any other schools followed their model and met with similar success. Dr. Cooper responded that she did not know of any other district that had gone as far as Southside. Most of those she knew of were detracking “course by course,” she said.

“This is the second time this year that we’ve had detracking come up,” commented Board member Omar Khuri. “I’m just wondering if we’re prepared to begin having a more comprehensive discussion about that.”

“Certainly it’s time to begin a discussion about it,” responded Ms. Hayman. “With the Freshman Humanities changes we have a great opportunity to look at how successful we are next year.” The District recently decided to remove the regular level from the Freshman Humanities program, reducing the number of tracks from four to three. “We need to take each piece of the curriculum and see what changes we can make to provide a high level education for all of our students,” Ms. Hayman continued.

“As long as I’ve been on the Board, we’ve been talking about detracking and making the regular classes more rigorous,” said Board member Mary Wilkerson. “This is the first time we’ve done anything about it.” She said she felt the one-level approach was positive because it did not give students the option “to step down and not work hard enough to stay in the class. … Now we have the supports in place to help the students.”

“We felt heartened by this trip,” said Dr. Cooper. “It reinforced some of the things we are doing … it’s given us support and wisdom about what some of our colleagues in another place have learned.”