A wide variety of concerns and perspectives marked a sometimes disorganized and rancorous PTSA forum about mixed-level classes, scheduled in the wake of a surprise change to the senior English program which eliminated the honors-only level.

Over 150 people attended the forum, “Mixed-Level and Honors-Only Classes at ETHS: The Past, The Present and The Future” on Oct. 6.

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon provided a backdrop to the discussion through a review of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, the District’s recent positive performance against those requirements and the comprehensive restructuring that has taken place through the System of Supports initiative and the reorganization of AVID, STAE and Project Excel.

In the context of the current celebration of ETHS’s 125th anniversary, Dr. Witherspoon said, “In our 125-year history one of the things that would have to concern all of us is that if you measure it by standardized tests, students of color have not enjoyed the same success overall that the white kids have enjoyed at this school.”

Administrators have taken steps recently to expand mixed-level classes to provide more opportunity for minority students to be exposed to honors-level work. They credit this effort and the more comprehensive support programs with the substantial improvements in standardized test scores for minority students this past year.

Although mixed-level classes, in some form or another, have been around “for decades” at ETHS, Dr. Witherspoon acknowledged that past efforts had been inadequate to meet the goal of improving the performance of lower achievers and at the same time provide sufficient challenge for higher achievers.

“If you measure it by standardized tests, students of color have not enjoyed the same success overall that the white kids have enjoyed at this school.” — District 202 Superintendent Dr. Eric Witherspoon

“In past years straight honors did move at a faster pace,” Dr. Witherspoon said in response to questions from the audience about the difference between honors in an honors-only classes and honors in mixed-level classes. “One of the things that we’re trying to do now is to have honors be honors – we’re trying very hard to have the same curriculum. That was not always the case.”

“I’d like to know why you have honors at all, then,” asked one parent, who did not identify herself. “Unless you want to have an elitist school, why are you separating out honors?”

“You are asking the pertinent question,” replied Dr. Witherspoon. “Because we didn’t want to move too rapidly and make sure we got it right. But it does beg that question. That’s what we’re trying to do this year is to get this thing right, so that we can demonstrate that there is no difference between the straight honors and the mixed honors.”

The same parent replied, “I’ve had children for ten years straight in the high school. The rigor of a mixed-level class doesn’t come close to an honors class.”

“You haven’t gotten it right for that many years,” she continued. “It seems half-baked, although I very much appreciate all the support you’re doing. The teachers don’t seem to be prepared to teach the mixed-level. Why would it be any different?”

Dr. Laura Cooper, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, attempted to provide further insight into changes being made to the mixed-level structures.

“We are redesigning the curriculum for Freshman Humanities so that there is one curriculum straight honors or mixed-level,” she said.

Jennifer Fisher, History Department chair, echoed Dr. Cooper’s remarks.

“I’ve been at this high school for 31 years,” she said “and for the first time in [all those] years in Freshman Humanities, we are working on common assessments, common assignments and a common semester exam. We are doing really difficult work – I promise you that the history and English teachers are really committed to this.”

Dr. Witherspoon conceded that mixed-level classes had not met expectations for rigor in past years, but said he was confident that the new approach would improve both challenge and performance. He also acknowledged that the process of making all senior English classes mixed-level, a cause of frustration and lack of trust for many at the meeting, had not conformed to the procedures he favored for such change and that it would not happen that way again.

Although the forum promised that administrators would present research on mixed-level classes and although the terms “research” and “studies” were used frequently in the defense of the expansion of mixed classes, little concrete information was provided. When such information was provided, its value was questioned.

“We are working with a national expert named Jessica Hockett [University of Virginia],” said Ms. Fisher, “and for the first time, teachers are being trained. We are being trained on something called differentiation of instruction which means we assess where kids are, what they need and how we can move them.”

PTSA co-president Deborah Graham challenged the immediate value of the approach.

“I served on the D65 enrichment committee, which spent months working on the issue of differentiation and how to implement it effectively, because it hasn’t been working to date in D65,” said Ms. Graham. “Jessica Hockett spoke to us and one of my big concerns that if you start from ground zero and you begin to implement a differentiation model it can take up to five years for results to begin to be felt. So what’s going to happen to all of our kids during these next five, and especially when the teachers who are teaching these classes [have received only] two days of training this summer which isn’t that much.”

Other parents expressed similar concerns.

“I haven’t heard anything about the honors kids raising their test scores,” queried one parent. “How’s it going to help our kids?”

Another remarked, “To make the argument that this is going to be of great benefit to the higher-achieving students is not a common-sense argument.”

A different point of view was voiced by another parent. “We know there are kids that are not meeting standards and we have to put the resources there. You only have a limited amount of resources and you have to put the resources in the kids that are not meeting the standards.”

District 202 Board President Martha Burns challenged the idea that “high achieving white students” had nothing to gain by being in a mixed-level class. “Kids of color bring capital to the classroom. For [all the] years that I’ve lived in this community, I’ve had to listen to a community talk about students of color in a deficit model.” But then she struck a more positive note. “If we can’t do it here [in Evanston], we can’t do it anywhere. If the classrooms aren’t working, we want to know about it.”

A show of hands of the people left at the end of the two-and-a-half hour meeting indicated that many still had not been satisfied by the information presented. Ms. Graham suggested that the topic be continued at the next PTSA meeting, scheduled for Nov. 6.