After weeks of meetings, forums, public comments and discussions, the District 202 School Board voted 5-1 to approve the continuation of the mixed-level senior English class. The mixed-level class has been a source of controversy since the beginning of the school year.
Board president Martha Burns, vice president Rachel Hayman and Board members Jane Colleton, Missy Fleming and Mary Wilkerson voted in favor of the measure; Margaret Lurie voted against it. Omar Khuri was absent.
The mixed-level course was presented in the context of an overall vote on course changes, additions and deletions – a standard procedure every year for the Board. This year, at Ms. Lurie’s request the vote on the senior English class was separated from the vote on the other courses, because, she said, she did not want to vote “no” on all the other courses.
Before the vote was taken, Ms. Lurie asked what the plans were for evaluating the success of the class.
“The intent is to evaluate senior English over a three-year period,” said Dr. Judith Levinson, director of research, evaluation and assessment. She said grades and a common semester exam would be part of the data used. In addition, she said, “We intend to ensure that the curriculum is of high rigor.”
Dr. Levinson also said there will be student and teacher surveys as well as interviews and focus groups with students and teachers.
Superintendent Dr. Eric Witherspoon said the Board will receive an evaluation report on the class “every year.”
“When you have change, you have different opinions,” said Ms. Burns. “I trust the leadership of our school … to tweak this until we get it right. I can assure you that this Board will hold everyone accountable.”
Although mixed-level classes have existed at ETHS for decades, the number has been increased recently to expose more students, particularly minority students, to honors-level work. Dr. Witherspoon said these efforts, along with increased assistance to students through System of Supports, have had a positive effect on student performance on standardized tests and other measures.
The mixed-level-class issue has engendered particular rancor this fall because the honors-only level of senior English was eliminated in September, without warning, a move that surprised not only parents and students but Board members and the Superintendent as well.
English department chair Judith Ruhana made the change, with the approval of Assistant Superintendent Laura Cooper, after a pilot program last year.
Dr. Witherspoon and Ms. Burns have acknowledged that the expansion of mixed-level and the elimination of straight honors did not follow established procedure and said the way it was handled was “a mistake.” They both, however, supported the concept of mixed-level classes.
About 370 students are enrolled in senior English; the remaining seniors take either Advanced Placement or mixed-level electives such as creative writing or world literature.
Students who did not want to take the mixed-level class after they learned that the straight-honors class was eliminated were permitted to switch to AP English or one of the English electives. Administrators said only a few chose this option.
Some students and parents complained that the mixed-level class does not offer the same level of challenge experienced by students in straight-honors classes. Others touted the value of diversity in the classroom. Teachers of the course maintain that classroom work has been “challenging,” “strenuous,” and “rigorous” and that every class at ETHS is a mixed-level class, as they all have students with a range of abilities and commitment to work.
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 the move generated some controversy as well, the change was only made after significant community discussions had taken place.