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ETHS Board adopts freshman humanities changes

While parents may have been divided on the merits of doing away with a straight Honors Humanities class at Evanston Township High School, the Board was not.

By a vote of 8-0, including all seven elected members plus the student representative, the Evanston/Skokie District 202 Board of Education late Monday night voted to restructure the 1 Humanities experience.

Under the new program, beginning next school year, all freshmen who have the requisite reading skills for high school work will have the opportunity to earn Honors credit in the class that combines history and English into a unified curriculum. Those not proficient in reading will be assigned to a class called 1 Humanities with Support.

This will replace the present program, which includes both a straight Honors class as well as a mixed class with both regular and Honors students.

When the changes were first proposed on Nov. 8 by Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, it was perceived by many parents as a “dumbing down” of the academic experience at the high school.

More than 100 persons showed up at that board meeting, many of whom denounced the program on those grounds. The superintendent vigorously defended the proposed changes, asserting that the program would do just the opposite and would position the school as a leader in the high school academic world.

Instead of lowering the academic rigor of the program, he declared, it would actually subject all but a few students who have reading difficulties to the same curriculum as that currently provided in the straight Honors classes.

“This recommendation,” he insisted, “is designed to create a school where many more students attain higher academic achievement, to improve learning for all students, to raise the academic ranking of ETHS, and to increase the prestige of ETHS when colleges, universities, and employers are considering our students and their credentials. This recommendation is designed to greatly benefit all ETHS students and benefit our community for generations to come.”

From the beginning, the proposal took on a racial tinge. Virtually every African-American parent, teacher, student, and administrator who offered their opinions during the public comment at Board meetings spoke in favor of the changes, with many telling stories of their own personal battles with discrimination in the classroom.

This came as a surprise to many white parents who argued that one’s race or ethnicity was irrelevant and should not be a factor in assigning students to Honors and Advance Placement classes. In the end, the argument that prevailed was the assumption that students in a diverse classroom would come out of the experience better prepared to succeed in an increasingly global and multi-cultural society.

When the Board met Monday night, it was the fourth and last meeting devoted primarily to this one issue, and the time to cast their individual votes was at hand.

One by one the seven elected officials plus the student representative on the Board delivered their opinions, most of which had been scripted in advance.

Board President Rachel Hayman first called on 20-year veteran Board member Jane Colleton, who said her four children had graduated from ETHS after taking Honors and Advance Placement courses. She described the proposal as inclusive, promising, thoughtful, modest, and advantageous to all. “I think this is a proposal whose time is now,” she said. “Let us be bold.”

Next, Mark Metz said he had given the issue a thorough hearing, having read every letter and email, listened intently to every comment, and took every telephone call. “I’ve done my homework,” he said. Declaring that the administrators and teachers are ready, he cautioned that, while he favored the proposal, he was against celebrating “until more students are achieving at higher levels.”

Student Board representative Joel Michael-Schwartz said he was skeptical at first, but now believes that the plan “has the potential to do great things.” He said he thought it would “alter the classroom dynamic” and he called on the Board to involve students in the planning and evaluating process.

Deborah Graham admitted that the issue has resulted in “a number of sleepless nights” for her and that she was primarily interested in maintaining or increasing the academic rigor of the program. An ETHS graduate who went on to Harvard, she said that she does not believe that one must be surrounded by Honors students in order to be academically challenged. “Students are challenged more when exposed to divergent views,” she said, and averred that they should emerge better prepared to function in “a world that is increasingly global and multi-dimensional.”

Gretchen Livingston thanked the many people who had expressed their views and said she believes the curriculum under the new plan will be significantly improved with greater rigor.

Mary Wilkerson noted that her daughter, an African-American ETHS graduate, recently achieved the distinction of becoming “a board-certified pediatrician.” She said the issue is not one about race, but rather it is about equal access. “If any school can be successful,” she said, “it is ETHS. We should move ahead with all deliberate speed.”

Martha Burns, noting that “this team of Board members really struggled with this issue,” said she feels that the restructuring proposal “creates pathways for all students to achieve.”

And finally, Rachel Hayman expressed her appreciation for the passionate involvement of the Evanston community in helping the Board to understand the many complexities of the issue. She said “the approach we took in the past did not work for a large number of students. I support the proposal.”

Next year the Board is scheduled to consider a similar proposal for restructuring the freshman biology program for the 2012-2013 school year.

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio stations and business-oriented magazines.

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