About 150 persons turned out for a debate among the eight candidates for the School District 202 (Evanston Township High School) Board – the first of several debates to be held before the April 9 election. The candidates are Elena Garcia Ansani, Andrew Bezaitis, Bill Geiger, Deborah Graham (incumbent), Doug Holt, Gretchen Livingston (incumbent), Casey Miller and Patricia Savage-Williams.

The two-hour debate, sponsored by Central Street Neighbors Association (CSNA), allowed moderator Jeff Smith to give candidates time to give both opening and closing statements and to answer nine questions compiled by CSNA. Most candidates agreed on most issues: that the high school must educate every student to the fullest; that whether or not the two school districts are consolidated, continued collaboration – in academics as well as purchasing – would be desirable; that students should feel safe and engaged in the school setting; that the school should continue to try to reach parents who are not connected to the school; and that standardized test scores are only one measure of student achievement.

The question that evoked the greatest spectrum of answers concerned the high school’s restructuring of its freshman program by implementing an earned-honors program in freshman humanities in 2010 and freshman biology in 2011.

The restructuring of freshman humanities and biology was a result of several issues at ETHS: a federal mandate for change required by the No Child Left Behind Act for failing to meet adequate yearly progress (restructuring is one option for failing to meet adequate yearly progress for a certain number of years); the relatively low number of minority students in honors and Advanced Placement courses; and inconsistencies in the mixed-level curricula and in the awarding of honors credit.

Under the restructured program all students testing at or above the 40th percentile for humanities and the 50th percentile for biology take the same course. Students who wish to earn honors credit must score above a certain level – “excellent” work, rather than additional work.

The restructured program replaced the program under which students were assigned into a “straight honors,” a “mixed-level honors” or a “regular” class with different curricula, and students in honors-level classes received a bump (generally .5) in whatever grades they received simply by virtue of being in the honors class.

Incumbents Ms. Livingston and Ms. Graham were asked how they voted on the restructuring of humanities and the expansion to biology; others were asked how they would have voted on those issues. The candidates were also asked to give their view on a proposed expansion of the program to sophomore history, which was withdrawn from consideration by administrators. The candidates’ answers follow:

Andy Bezaitis: “I would have voted to stick with the plan. The initial decision had three plans associated with testing out the effectiveness of the mixed-honors program. I would have voted to wait to see how that program worked. Further, I would have waited on the biology program. Once again, wait and see what the effectiveness would look like. This for two reasons: One is to measure effectiveness, but two, it gives the organization time to plan. The organization admitted they rushed into the decision and forced the teachers and administrators into a very rushed roll-out of the program.

“I’m a process guy. I like experimentation. My technology background is trying new things. But you’ve got to have a plan. You’ve got to stick to your plan if you’re going to be effective. Effectiveness in scaling out programs matters, not just heart-felt ambitions in terms of goals.

“A lot of these programs will work, and we have to keep trying to find programs that do. But we’ve got to have plans and we’ve got to evaluate those plans before we ride forward.”

Bill Geiger: “I agree with the Board’s decision to restructure freshman humanities and biology. It was my view that the planning, the preparation, the implementation, the execution were well thought out. There was time to prepare and successfully execute that plan. I believe we now need to hold the administration accountable to the explicit, clear expectation that this restructuring would result in increased student performance for all students. It is time now to evaluate that and assess that to determine how it’s working. Let’s celebrate those aspects where it is working. Let’s look at those aspects that are not working as well as we like and figure out why and what to do about it, and in those instances where it’s not working, figure out the next step as well.”

Deborah Graham: “I voted in favor of the freshman restructuring, in part because I was in mixed-level classes during my first two years at ETHS. But those were combined studies classes, and those classes were made up of a self-selecting population.

“I was only one of two Board members who opposed the extension of freshman restructuring of biology. … The reason I voted against the extension of biology was because the Board lacked any data showing that the freshman restructuring was actually working both for high-achieving students and for low-achieving students. I also voted against the expansion to the sophomore-year history class, “World History for All of Us,” in part because of the lack of differentiated instruction that was characteristic of this class.”

Ms. Graham added, “I am concerned about the freshman restructuring. High-achieving students aren’t necessarily being sufficiently challenged, and the low-achieving students aren’t necessarily getting the reading and writing assistance they need to succeed in these classes. The data I cited earlier shows the achievement gap is alive and well at ETHS.” She said the Board needed to address these issues.

Doug Holt: “I like the idea of the freshman humanities restructuring, which is to broaden and get a wider group of students and enable them to succeed. It’s really important to note, though, that when that was passed in 2010, the idea was to increase the number of students going into honors and AP classes. It seems like in past years we heard a lot about AP level, but not much about honors, and I think there’s a legitimate question about, ‘Is there a role for straight honors for those upperclassmen?’ I would not have supported the change to biology because we were less than one year underway with the freshman humanities after restructuring. I feel it’s too soon, too fast.

“It’s really important for people to know that everybody’s taking the same test, everybody’s doing the same work. It really raises some questions about how are we serving these students who really want to go fast and far.”

Gretchen Livingston: “I supported the change in the freshman humanities class because it was unquestionably an improved curriculum. The curriculum added more reading, more books, more writing and more regularized method of assessment. This was the reason for my support. The program is still under evaluation.

“With respect to biology, I voted for a one-year delay of the biology change and I would also vote that way today. I would prefer to wait, because I don’t think we’re ready for the prime time on the biology side, but that didn’t have the support of the Board. When I supported biology, I had certain conditions. Bring in Dr. David Figlio, an outside evaluator from Northwestern to evaluate not just biology, but also the humanities program. That evaluation program is critical to whatever decisions we make going forward.

“We didn’t actually vote on the change for the sophomore year curriculum expansion. The administration withdrew that proposal, understanding that there were at least four of us, including myself, who would have voted against it.

Casey Miller: “I would still agree with and would have supported the Board decision to restructure the freshman humanities curriculum and raise the expectation of achievement for all students. Like Gretchen, I believe that it is an improved curriculum and I do believe that the skills that have been incorporated in the freshman curriculum are skills that we need to teach each of our students.

“I also, however, believe that we had to wait for the evaluation before we decided to extend it. I probably would have preferred to take time before extending freshman biology. But overall I do believe that we have an obligation to try to raise the expectation and raise the achievement for every student. If this current restructuring doesn’t work, I’m willing to try something else. We can’t go back to a system that we know didn’t work and assign a large portion of our population to a substandard education.”

Patricia Savage-Williams: “I served on the ad hoc committee to study the possibility of restructuring the freshman humanities. I worked on that committee for three years; and we did a lot of research and talking and thinking prior to making a recommendation to the School Improvement Team. So I would have supported the restructuring of the freshman humanities in 2010.

“I think that earning honors and the assessment process is an opportunity to open accessibility for honors courses to students that would not normally achieve that. Also I think that the assessment and evaluation process is critical as we move forward. I think it’s important to move forward as quickly as possible. Although, I realize it will take time for us to complete the evaluation process.”

Elena Garcia Ansani: “I also agree and support the current earned honors credit of the restructured program for freshman humanities and freshman biology. This is an instructional model designed for increasing advanced educational opportunities for traditionally underperforming student groups and for providing new avenues for more students to take honors-level courses and hopefully advanced placement courses.

“ETHS has aligned its curriculum to AP expectations, ACT college readiness standards and common core standards. I perceive this to be an extraordinary example of pragmatism – which is practicality at work – and certainly intentional in its efforts to address educational disparities through rigorous learning experiences. It is also an appropriate response to address the school’s failure to meet adequate yearly progress and in accordance with the accountability directives outlined by No Child Left Behind.

“It is also aligned with the ETHS equity and excellence commitment statement.”