After weeks of meetings, forums, public comments and discussions, the District 202 School Board is poised to vote on the continuation of the mixed-level senior English class which has been a source of controversy since the beginning of the school year.

What’s Happened in the Past Year

Although mixed-level classes have existed at Evanston Township High School “for decades,” they were expanded recently in order to expose more students, particularly minority students, to honors-level work. These efforts, said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, along with increased assistance for students through System of Supports, STAE, AVID and Project Excel, 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 in September without warning, 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 the running of a pilot program during the 2007-8 school year. Dr. Witherspoon and Board president Martha Burns have acknowledged that the mixed-level expansion and the elimination of straight honors did not follow established procedure and was “a mistake.”

About 370 students are enrolled in senior English; the rest of the senior class either takes advanced placement or mixed-level electives such as creative writing or world literature.

In contrast, the Freshman Humanities program was changed last year, eliminating the regular level of the course while retaining a very selective straight honors level, a mixed-level and an enriched (remedial) level. Although this move generated some controversy as well, the change was made only after significant community discussions had taken place.

Superintendent’s Action Plan

At the Dec. 1 Board meeting, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon offered a series of action steps to “ensure that concerns are addressed, and that the mixed-level classes … are effective in challenging students academically and raising student achievement”:

• Teachers will be consulted continuously to assure they are receiving the support they need to “teach to the top” in mixed-level classes. Teachers will systematically ask for input from students regarding ways to strengthen the mixed-level classes.

• The literacy team, AVID/STAE/Excel team and the System of Supports team will continue to coordinate additional pre-teaching and academic support for students in Freshman Humanities and senior English mixed-level classes, so students’ learning will accelerate and they will keep up with the rapid pace of the classes.

• Ongoing professional development will be provided for teachers throughout the school year. Expanded summer training and curriculum projects will be provided so teachers of mixed-level classes have ample time to analyze the “lessons learned” and data collected this year. Teachers will make modifications and improvements based on a comprehensive annual evaluation of the mixed-level classes.

• A broad-based advisory subcommittee will be established by the School Improvement Team to study potential pitfalls and make recommendations for strengthening mixed-level classes. The subcommittee will also study the research and recommend additional strategies for effectively increasing academic achievement at ETHS.

• Summer bridge programs will be expanded to better prepare students who will be taking mixed-level and advanced placement classes.

• Any senior in a mixed-level senior English class will be offered the option to take another English elective for second semester.

• Double periods will be offered immediately to students needing more pre-teaching and support.

• Enriched (remedial) sections of senior English will be created before winter break to support students struggling the most.

Board Reactions and Perspective

Board members offered their views about the mixed-level senior English class, which will be brought before the Board for a vote on Dec. 15, along with approval for other course additions, changes and deletions.

“I was appalled by the way this course was implemented,” said Board member Margaret Lurie. She stated that the lack of communication was contrary to Board goals.

While she supports efforts to assist underachieving students, Ms. Lurie said, “[she has] asked many times what’s in it for the higher-achieving kids, I’ve yet to receive a satisfactory answer.”

She said that she planned to vote against the class and even suggested that the straight honors level be reinstated second semester, “which is what the kids signed up for in the first place.”

Board vice president Rachel Hayman said, “I believe that all students will benefit from the approach we’re taking. In addition to exposing students to a broader perspective from increased diversity in the classroom, we’re finally taking a methodical approach to curriculum and we’re committed to evaluating and monitoring our classes in a way that … we have not previously done.” She added, “We need to be patient, and we need to allow this approach some time”.

Board member Mary Wilkerson pointed out that when the District wants to add an advanced-level course, “you think about it for a minute and then you implement it. But when it comes to students whose parents are not so vocal, or we want to implement a more aggressive program (for underachieving students), people want you to be patient, go slow, do another study.”

Student board member Adam Newman said that he had talked to “a lot” of students who had originally signed up for the straight honors section of senior English. “They are not satisfied with it. [They] feel like puzzle pieces who are being experimented with. … Let’s sit down with students and talk about how this class can become better.”

“I’m very torn,” said Board member Missy Fleming. At first, she said, she thought the Board should have directed the administration to reinstate the straight honors level. “But what I think I’m coming to understand is that this is bigger than just the … English [class].” She said she appreciated the action plan that Dr. Witherspoon was planning to implement and also that she had had a positive experience in the two senior English classes she had observed. “It really broadened my perspective on the issue,” she said.

“This has been hard for us as a Board,” said Ms. Burns. “We have disagreed, but we have not gotten disagreeable. … I just want the public to know … we have certainly taken everything [the public] has said into account,” she continued. “I personally know that the administration has really tried to make sure going forward that this is the best possible situation for every student in this building.”

The Board will vote on the proposal at its next meeting on Dec. 15.