About 200 persons attended a special District 202 School Board meeting held on Nov. 29 with the purpose of further explaining the administration’s proposal to reconfigure Freshman Humanities.

Evanston Township High School Superintendent Dr. Eric Witherspoon has proposed that all incoming freshmen scoring above the 40th percentile in reading on the EXPLORE test will be enrolled in the same course: 1 Humanities. Students scoring below the 40th percentile will be enrolled in 1 Humanities with Support. 

Students in the 1 Humanities course will be able to “earn honors credit by classroom work – not by simply being [by option or assignment] in an honors class,” Dr. Peter Bavis, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at ETHS, told the RoundTable.

Currently students who score at or above the 95th percentile are placed in a straight-honors Humanities class. Those scoring between the 40th and 95th percentiles are placed in a mixed- level Humanities class and may elect to take the course for honors credit. Since 2008, straight-honors and mixed-level classes have been taught the same curriculum.

Benefits of the Proposal

– Rigor and Equity

Dr. Bavis said that, historically, students were assigned to levels based on their scores on the EXPLORE test, administered in eighth grade. “We just don’t believe a student’s whole high school experience should be determined by the score on one test,” Dr. Witherspoon told the RoundTable.

He added that, for the most part, the majority of students in honors-level and AP classes have been white. He said administrators also see the proposal to reconfigure Freshman Humanities as an “equity” issue, allowing more students – particularly students of color – into more rigorous classes, thus providing a model and encouragement for future academic choices at ETHS.  He said one of the goals of the restructuring is to get more students to take more AP and straight-honors classes, which are still offered in the upper grades.

Studies have shown that lower-performing students benefit from a school climate where high expectations are the norm. The report “Pathway to 20,” published by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, found that a strong academic culture and rigorous coursework spurs students on, facilitates greater student learning and better prepares students for college readiness.

Dr. Witherspoon and others say the benefits to high-achieving students will be continued exposure to rigorous course-work and classroom experience, as well as the enriched opportunity of sharing ideas ith and learning viewpoints of students with whom they might not otherwise have interacted.

Because the majority of eighth-graders come into ETHS reading at or above the 40th percentile, abilities in the Freshman Humanities classes would be mixed, administrators say, with the “floor” being grade-level reading. Teachers would use differentiated instruction to help each student learn to his or her maximum potential.

Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson of the University of Virginia, a nationally recognized leader in differentiated instruction, said at a forum last week at Chute Middle School, “What [differentiated instruction] really means to me is a classroom that has very high ceilings of expectations, not one where you lower the ceiling from the high end but one where you raise the floor for other kids. … When you teach all kids as though they were smart, amazing things happen for all kids.”

The administration promises that the rigorous curriculum will be aligned with the recently promulgated Common Core Learning Standards for Illinois students. Grading will be consistent across the humanities curriculum, using rubrics “aligned with Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) standards,” Dr. Bavis said.

The Nov. 29 Meeting

ETHS faculty members David Futransky and Janet Webb moderated the Nov. 29 meeting, at which a panel of academicians spoke and school administrators responded to questions from the audience.

Three associate professors in the education department of National Louis University and a lecturer in history from Lake Forest College spoke for about 45 minutes on subjects related to the proposal: Dr. Harrington Gibson, Dr. Dick Streedain, Dr. Ted Purinton and Dr. Catherine Weidner.

The questions given to the panelists by ETHS administrators was, “Can you speak to our proposed changes and the implications you believe these changes will have on the achievement of our students?”

As a group the panel focused more on the “race and equity” issue than the “rigor in the classroom” concern, addressing the issues of tracking and diversity.

Dr. Gibson criticized tracking as being “in complete contrast to what schools in America were created for.” He said, “Equity and excellence are not polar opposites. You need to address both of them and not feel as if you’re sacrificing academic excellence in lieu of equity.”

“In our classrooms, there might be a future plumber, a future philosopher, a future mathematician and a future beautician,” said Dr. Streedain. “How can we keep them together to really create powerful learning amongst themselves?”

Audience Q and A

Most questions posed at the meeting were submitted anonymously and then read by the moderators.  Audience members also made comments from the floor.

One parent asked whether transcripts would look different and if this proposal “will hurt my child’s chances of getting into highly selective schools?”

Dr. Paula Miller, ETHS associate principal for student services, said transcripts look no different from how they do now. “If a student has earned honors credit, [the transcript] will indicate honors credit,” she said.

 Dr. Miller also said that she had consulted with deans and admissions directors at several highly selective colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, Carleton, Williams and Amherst. She said they indicated no reservations about the change, and, in fact, several said they thought it would be an advantage to students.

Another question was whether there would be smaller classes to accommodate the “new teaching style” and whether parents would be able to observe classes.

Dr. Witherspoon said no additional English or history teachers would be hired, but that some additional sections would be opened in Freshman Humanities through “redeployment of teachers” from upper level classes which have smaller enrollments.

He added, “We do not open our classes on a regular basis. We maintain the integrity of the learning environment.” 

In answer to a question of why a pilot program would not be used to test the plan, Dr. Witherspoon said, “We had 127 years in this school to get it right. We don’t need to ask the children of this community to wait another five years, ten years or another 127 years before we do what we should be doing for them.” 

Several questioned whether other panelists could have been invited or other studies presented with another perspective on detracking.

“Everyone in this room who is in a professional field knows that you can find all sorts of studies,” Dr. Witherspoon responded. “Without a doubt there are studies that contend that detracking should not take place. We’ve tried to highlight some of those on our website. I’m convinced that no matter what the research says, in the end it boils down to ETHS. In the end will we make it work?”

Some parents have said that the administration and the Board had committed to evaluating the current structure for three years before making any changes.  A petition now circulating on the Internet (signed by more than 400 persons) claims that the Board had “promised” to complete a three-year evaluation before making any other changes.

Dr. Witherspoon told the RoundTable that, although he had requested that the current structure be evaluated for three years, “we never stated that we would do nothing more nor make any additional recommendations until the three-year evaluation cycle was completed.  Frankly, a district remanded to restructuring by the Illinois State Board of Education certainly cannot say it will not make any more improvements or consider any other recommendations for three years when problems persist and when the school is not making AYP.”

Community Response

The proposal – which includes a similar treatment of Freshman Biology starting in 2012 – has met with resistance and concern by some parents and other members of the community. One concern expressed by several is that rigor in the classroom and the curriculum will be diluted once honors classes are eliminated from the freshman humanities and biology curricula.

On the other hand, some parents and community members have supported the proposal because they say their children have benefited from mixed-level classes. They also say they believe that implementing this proposal will result in an overdue amelioration of past practices that have denied equal access to challenging academic experiences for minority students.

Teachers who have spoken in public session have said that they are behind it, and the few students who have spoken have been slightly more in favor than not. The student paper, the Evanstonian, published an editorial supporting the proposal.

Overall, the comments made by administrators, teachers, community leaders, alumni and parents at the Nov. 29 meeting were more generally supportive of the proposal than those at the Nov. 8 and 22 meetings.

“[We must] set the standard for equity and access for all of our students,” said history department chair Jennifer Fisher

 “We recognize that all of our kids are capable of earning honors credit; we will persevere with them,” said Chala Holland, director of academic support.

“This is a courageous undertaking, yet it represents what we have always professed to be: an egalitarian and integrated community,” said retired English teacher Bruce Mitchell, who taught at ETHS for 32 years. “Now is the time.”

“My mixed-level classes … achieve levels of trust that allow students to ask each other hard questions and confront stereotypes,” said history teacher Betsy Gutstein.  “Straight honors classes consistently lack the diversity to reach similar depths of understanding.”

“I stand here before you as a product of a society that told me I wouldn’t succeed,” said first-year teacher Corey Winchester, a 2010 graduate of Northwestern University. “We need to move forward with this to provide opportunities for our students.”

ETHS alumnus and former ETHS parent William Geiger applauded the “bold recommendation that challenges us to put excellence within the reach of every student… it seems to me that the challenge will be to provide the additional resources to assure the successful implementation.”

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, another ETHS alumnus urged the Board not to perpetuate the concept of “drive-by diversity” but to support Dr. Witherspoon’s proposal to “close the gap, close the gap, close the gap.”

“The indispensable ingredient that is missing from this proposal is trust,” said ETHS parent Jonathan Baum. He said that the administration and Board must do a variety of things to build trust, including being more honest, more open, more thorough, exhibit planning and ensure adequate resources, to name a few.

“A lot of us here, especially [parents of] minority students, want to trust that all students are given the opportunity for success at ETHS,” said parent and alumna Kimberly Frazier.  “We want the best for our students, just like you want the best for your students.”

“I believe it is incumbent upon us as a community to integrate the values of a democratic society with academic rigor by promoting intellectual and experiential diversity in all our classrooms,” said parent and alumna Janise Hurtig. 

“It feels like by questioning [the proposal] it means that I don’t want kids of all races to excel,” said parent Jane Berkley.  “I don’t want us to label any kid, regardless of their color with some assumption or prejudice. … We just have some questions.”

The School Board is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its meeting on Monday, December 13

ETHS and NCLB

In March, 2008, the D202 School Board voted unanimously to eliminate the regular level of the Freshman Humanities course, a move intended to increase the rigor in Humanities classes, thus increasing the number of students, especially students of color, who can meet the more difficult requirements for honors credit.””

At the time Dr. Witherspoon cited two reasons for the change: restructuring ETHS as a result of state sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and addressing persistently low levels of minority students in honors level classes. The District has continued to fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress under the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. State sanctions for this continued failure require the District to restructure aspects of the school which impact student achievement.

Meanwhile, the Freshman Humanities structure that was instituted in 2008 has been evaluated twice and reports submitted to the Board. The RoundTable covered these reports on June 9, 2009 and August 31, 2010.