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Teachers of the mixed-level senior English class at Evanston Township High School told School Board members at a special Board meeting on Nov. 19 that classwork has been “challenging,” “strenuous,” and “rigorous.” All classes at ETHS, they said, are in fact “mixed-level,” as they all have students with a range of abilities and commitment to work.

Teachers also reported that they have experienced an overwhelmingly positive response from both students and parents to the course, which was extended this year to all seniors not taking AP English or electives. The straight-honors level senior English was eliminated.

Teachers also cited other benefits of the class.

“Many have never been together before,” said Janice Jenkins, a veteran teacher who taught the pilot mixed-level class last year and is also teaching it this year. “They would never have been exposed to each other without this class.”

Matthew Bourjailly, who joined the English department this year from Bolingbrook High School said, “What I see daily in my classroom is a testament to this community and the values it upholds.”

District 202 Board president Martha Burns explained that the special meeting had been called because “we have actively sought ways to hear from many of our stakeholders.”

Although mixed-level classes have existed at ETHS for decades, they have been expanded recently in order to expose more students, particularly minority students, to honors-level work. Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said these efforts, along with increased assistance to students through System of Supports, have had a positive effective on student performance on standardized tests and other measures.

The mixed-level class issue engendered particular rancor this fall because the honors-only level of senior English was eliminated without warning in September, surprising not only parents and students, but Board members and the Superintendent as well.

The change was made by Judith Ruhana, English department chairman, after a pilot program was run during the 2007-08 school year. At that time both Ms. Burns and Dr. Witherspoon said the expansion of mixed-level and the elimination of straight honors did not follow established procedure and was “a mistake.”

Since a Sept. 8 meeting when the change was revealed by a parent speaking during public comment, Ms. Burns said Board members have attended PTSA meetings, met with students, taken public comment at several Board meetings and met with Dr. Witherspoon and with former District 202 School Board members.

A public forum on the topic of mixed-level classes was scheduled for Monday. Ms. Burns said the Board will hear further public comment at the Dec. 1 Board meeting, in advance of the planned vote on Dec. 15 on the continuation of the mixed-level class for next year.

“I feel kind of a disconnect from what we hear from the parents who have spoken to us – and there have been a lot of them – and what you are telling us tonight,” said Board member Margaret Lurie. She read from an e-mail she had received from a parent:

“‘Based on [my son’s] experience during his five weeks in senior English, the new course bears no relationship to an honors class. There is no comparison to the course our older son had two years ago.’”

“That’s the same kind of thing we got from many parents,” Ms. Lurie said, “and when I hear you guys talk it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

David Futransky, history teacher and president of Teachers Council, who was part of the panel making the presentation to the Board, said that perhaps some parents who had concerns “were not talking to teachers but are talking through the Board. Then there is a real disconnect.”

“I don’t know what to tell you about that kind of e-mail except that person needs to go to the teacher,” said Ms. Ruhana, who also sat on the panel, “so the teacher can clarify what happened and encourage that student to feel better about their class.”

She also suggested that the parent might be afraid that “somebody is going to lose in this. This isn’t a zero-sum kind of a thing. Everybody gains when your expectations are rigorous and high.”

During public comments a variety of questions were raised.

Parent Suzanne Ehrenberg suggested that teaching a mixed-level class was a challenging task for which perhaps not all ETHS teachers are qualified.

PTSA co-president Deborah Graham asked, “[Are] you actually planning a wholesale detracking program or aren’t you?”

“What I haven’t heard is how the bar is being raised for the honors students,” said parent Caroline Glasser. “All I see it that something’s been taken away and what’s been added is a better quality of a diverse level of conversation in the class, and to me, that’s not enough.”

Sophomore Ellen Roeder, who was in all straight-honors classes her freshman year, gave a different perspective on the value of a diverse level of classroom conversation.

“I’m in a mixed-level history class, and it has opened up so many new opinions to me from people who wouldn’t normally be in my class,” she said. “I’m in honors English and we’re reading “Black Boy.” There’s only one black student in our entire class and there’s not a black male. The story is about the struggles of a black male and there’s not even someone to give input about the text. It’s ridiculous.”