Many familiar themes were discussed at the forum on mixed-level classes held in the Evanston Township High School auditorium on Nov. 24.
The forum was held in lieu of a regular School Board meeting to address questions and concerns and to receive community input on the issue of mixed-level classes, a topic of conversation at many District 202 School Board meetings and in other venues for the past year.
History teacher and Teachers’ Council President David Futransky and math teacher Janet Webb moderated the two-and-one-half hour meeting. All the School Board members attended the meeting, along with senior administrators, department chairs, deans and teachers and two professors, Jessica Hockett, a differentiated-education researcher from the University of Virginia, and Dr. Louis Gomez, a professor of education at Northwestern University.
Several themes emerged from the comments and questions posed by the nearly 200 attendees: high expectations and support, means of evaluating the program and the future of honors-level classes at the high school.
High Expectations and Support
One thread of questions concerned what is being done to ensure that expectations in the classroom are high and that adequate support is being provided to those who needed it.
“Expectations are high for everyone in the program,” said English department chair Judith Ruhana. “The teachers meet regularly, they talk about what is good enough, what the highest level of this looks like, and how we can deliver it so that everybody in class has access to it.”
In addition, administrators said students who need additional assistance are assigned to support programs such as AVID, STAE and Project Excel and that the school-wide System of Supports is available as well.
“What is constant is the high expectations,” said Assistant Superintendent Laura Cooper. “What is varied is the amount of time and effort some students might need to put in and the amount and type of support that students might need to receive,” she added.
Evaluation of Effectiveness of Teachers and Program
“How are you going to be measuring the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom in those . . . classes?” asked parent Ava Greenwell.
“We do have a [formal] teacher evaluation system … that includes our tenured teachers,” responded Dr. Witherspoon. “We [also] have feedback loops, professional learning communities, common planning periods where teachers can work and share the experiences they are having … it’s a collaborative evaluation system [as well],” he added.
“We anticipate [the evaluation of the Freshman Humanities and Senior English] to be a multi-year process,” Dr. Cooper said in response to a question about how the programs would be evaluated. “As we go through this first year,” she continued, “we will look at a number of indicators as we do for the whole school. We will be looking at grades, test score data … common semester exams …. feedback of teachers, students and parents.”
Future of Straight Honors
Mr. Futransky read a question from the audience about the possibility of the total elimination of honors-level classes: “Is there a Board or administration plan to eventually eliminate straight honors classes? Is this all that’s going to happen in this direction, or is this just a start?”
Superintendent Eric Witherspoon responded.
“Right now there is no proposal to eliminate any of the straight-honors classes,” he said. If that were to come up that would be in the future and it would be after a lot of considerations and it would only be if for some reason that made sense.”
A few students said that they were “bored” in their mixed-level class or had heard of friends who felt similarly. One senior commented that only a small percentage of students in his class participated in discussions and that expectations were low in the class. “I don’t want my education sacrificed for the benefit of other people,” he said.
Associate Principal Bruce Romain invited students who were dissatisfied with their experience in class to talk to their teachers about their frustrations, and if that was not possible, that they should speak to a counselor or administrator about their concerns. “Try to trust some of us to help [you] through that,” he said.
Another student suggested that students who felt they were not being challenged should “take their education into their own hands.”
Senior Zoe Goodman protested that “changes are being forced upon us. We are resentful that we don’t have as much of a say. What can we as students do to facilitate this change?”
Assistant Superintendent Marilyn Madden said that she had an advisory committee that she wanted students to be involved in. “It’s really important that we hear the student voice. We listen to the teachers but we want to hear from students,” she said.
Coordination With District 65
A few questions were asked about the extent to which the high school is coordinating its efforts with District 65 to insure continuity and prepare students for the ETHS curriculum. Many remarked that preparation for the demands of high school was not adequate in the elementary and middle schools.
“We are committed to that,” said Dr. Witherspoon, “and all the signals we’ve received from District 65 [indicate] they are committed to that. We really believe we can do a whole lot better in that area and in coordinating to make sure that we all have the same expectations and goals for our students.”
Parent Larry Marks commented that it might be “too late” to fix problems of achievement at the high school level.
“The issue of student achievement is a complex issue,” said Dr. Cooper. “I can’t list on two hands the factors that contribute to student learning. But as a lifelong educator I know it is never too late. We don’t have time to push responsibility anywhere else. When they walk in this door, they’re ours, and we don’t think it’s ever too late.”
An 11- page handout answering frequently asked questions about mixed-level classes was distributed at the meeting. The document can been accessed on the ETHS website http://www.eths.k12.il.us/memos/faqrigor.pdf