Freshmen who enter Evanston Township High School in the fall of 2011 reading at grade level and above will now be assigned to a single level of Humanities class. It will be taught at the honors level and will require students to earn honors credit based on their performance on several common assessments to be administered over the course of the semester. This “restructured freshman experience” was unanimously approved by the District 202 School Board at its meeting on Dec. 13, in the wake of extensive debate, public comment, panel discussions and presentations over the course of three previous meetings.

Administrators say they hope the new structure will provide more opportunity for students, especially minority students, to take more challenging courses in later years at ETHS. They also say they hope the measure will help to address persistent achievement problems for many minority and low-income students. Administrators maintain that high-achieving students will benefit from the revised, more rigorous curriculum and a more diverse classroom environment.

This new structure replaces the one in effect since 2008. Under that structure students with test scores above the 95th percentile in reading on the eighth-grade EXPLORE test were assigned to a stand-alone honors class. Students with scores between the 40th and 94th percentile were assigned to a class taught with an honors curriculum, but students could elect to take the course for regular or honors credit.

As before, students testing below the 40th percentile will be placed in Humanities with Support, a modified curriculum with significant reading assistance included to bring them up to grade level.

The approved proposal includes plans for a similar approach to Freshman Biology to be implemented in the fall of 2012.

In his introductory remarks before an audience of about 100 people, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon reminded the Board and the public about the nature of the proposal, reflecting on some of the controversy that had been raised since it was first presented in early November.

“This is not a secret plot to eliminate honors and AP classes at ETHS,” Dr. Witherspoon said. “In the coming years, we’ll strive to have more and more students taking those classes, not eliminating them.”

He praised the interest in the proposal and the wide input it received. “Implementation of this proposal will be much more successful because so many people are engaged in this public process with us,” he said. “In the end, we all want what’s best for the students at ETHS.”

Board Perspective

Although the Board approved the proposal unanimously, members differed in their perspectives on it, voicing a variety of concerns and priorities.

“ETHS cannot view itself as an excellent school if it continues to offer its wonderful educational resources to a select group of its students,” said Board president Rachel Hayman, “while other students are denied the opportunity to fully participate in our most challenging courses.”

Ms. Hayman emphasized the need for a different approach to meeting the needs of all students. “We know that the approach we’ve taken in the past has not worked for a large number of our students,” she said. “It is the Board’s responsibility to see that the needs of all students are met. Continuing to do the same things, which have not worked, is not acceptable.”

Vice president Jane Colleton, a five-term board member, said, “I have worked on this board for nearly two decades to find ways to close [the achievement gap]. We’ve made progress, but we’re not there. The proposal aims to continue the progress … to do the right thing. … We must act on our commitment [to provide students with … real access to success] not just talk about it.”

“I’ve done my homework,” said Board member Mark Metz. He referred to his comprehensive review of all of the input he had received from the public as well as his study of the research and many discussions with administrators and faculty. “I’ve come away comforted by the knowledge that our administrators and our superb faculty are well prepared to meet the arduous challenges posed by the transformational change upon which we will vote this evening, and I firmly believe that the new freshman experience will benefit all students at ETHS.”

Student Board member Joel Michael Schwartz said he felt the proposal would “improve the standard of education … [bring us] closer to equity [and] further away from the harmful system of standardized tests that pervades our educational system.” But he cautioned that assessments for honors credit should allow students creative expression and understanding instead of just in-class assignments and tests. “Students should also teach one another,” he suggested. “It is important that students are a part of the process that will look into the details of implementing this proposal,” he added.

Deborah Graham, the only Board member with an incoming freshman, said she was initially “very conflicted about the proposal” but had been convinced to support it. As an example, she said that after observing both “mixed-level and straight-honors Freshman Humanities classes, I couldn’t always tell them apart. … The students in the mixed-level classes were focused on their work, not at all disruptive, and rising to the occasion. I saw them grappling successfully with the same curriculum as honors-only students.”

“This proposal will not eliminate honors-level courses in the humanities, either at the freshman level or anywhere else. Those who say otherwise are wrong,” said Board member Gretchen Livingston. She maintained that because the stand-alone honors and the mixed-level humanities classes were being taught the same curriculum, “it simply makes no sense to continue the artificial separation” of the two classes.

Ms. Graham said she truly believes students are challenged more when exposed to differing perspectives. “As we prepare ETHS students to enter a world that’s increasingly global and multicultural, we need to teach them to listen to, respect, understand and learn from the experiences and perspectives of people unlike themselves.”

Board member Martha Burns agreed. She addressed her remarks to some parents who have questioned what the proposal will do for high achieving students.

“High-achieving students will experience the reality and richness of a multi-cultural classroom in preparation for citizenship in the global world,” she pointed out. “[They] will have the opportunity to engage in discussion with, and to learn from, the perspectives of intelligent students of color who have different life experiences and cultural perspectives on the world.

“I am proud to be a part of redefining what it means to be a student at ETHS by changing the culture of the school to address the needs of all our students,” Ms. Burns continued. “After over 125 years, this is long overdue.”

In support of the proposal, Board member Mary Wilkerson cited the example of her own daughter, an ETHS alumna and now a pediatrician, who had taken honors and AP classes but had friends who “did not score high on the Explore [test] and therefore, they did not take these courses. I wonder how many of them would have excelled if they had been exposed to a rigorous curriculum and if more had been expected of them.”

ETHS Prepares to Teach Diverse Group Of Students in 1 Humanities

In his opening remarks concerning the proposed changes in the freshman Humanities honors program on Dec. 13, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon summarized some of the steps that Evanston Township High School had taken and will take to ensure that all students are challenged and receive the support they need in the classroom. He said:

• ETHS has trained teachers in differentiated instruction and will identify additional expert consultants to come in and continue this work and provide ongoing coaching, support and assessment on how teachers are providing differentiated instruction.

• ETHS has developed a strong system of supports, as well as AVID and STAE, to support students who will be in the classrooms with the most challenging honors curricula. Academic support and effective skill-building will be embedded into curricula and classroom experience.

• The administration, with an expert mapping consultant, has begun with freshman teachers in history, English and science to align the honors curriculum with AP expectations and to develop common assessments for earning honors.

• The school has a fully developed professional training program in place, and it has a fully developed professional learning community in place where teachers can meet once a week and support one another.

• ETHS has an evaluation-and-accountability system in place so department chairs and administrators are regularly in the classrooms observing, coaching, evaluating and providing teachers with assistance.

•An assessment team has developed the outline of a detailed evaluation plan to assess and provide ongoing and annual evaluations of the program.