The Evanston Township High School board Monday night continued a dialog about the administration’s plan to eliminate honors-only sections of its freshman humanities class next fall.

The Evanston Township High School board Monday night continued a dialog about the administration’s plan to eliminate honors-only sections of its freshman humanities class next fall.

Actually, calling it a dialog is a bit misleading. It began with a full-press, in-depth description of the proposed restructuring by administration officials Diep Nguyen, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, and Peter Bavis, associate principal for curriculum and instruction, moderated by Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. They laid out more details of the plan introduced at a board meeting two weeks ago.

That was followed by a brief question period that included a lengthy prepared statement by board member Deborah Graham that was derided by member Mary Wilkerson as a “soliloquy,” ending with an expression of concern about whether “safe spaces” would be provided for “stressed-out” students.

Then came the “public comment,” featuring a parade of 22 teachers, students, and parents who consistently violated the three-minute time limit, but actually made some suggestions for improving the implementation of the program.

Under the rules of procedure, these comments were accepted for the record but without comment from either the board or the administration. Another “discussion” session is scheduled for Nov. 29, followed by a vote on Dec. 13.

At the heart of the controversy is a course labeled “1 Humanities” and its offshoot, “1 Humanities Honors.” The course combines the freshman English and history curriculum into one integrated offering.

There’s a racial element to the program that “stunned” one parent. It seems that the honors track has few African-American students. And those initial assignments set the pace for this ethnic group to be excluded, in the view of some, from future honors and advanced placement programs.

Witherspoon contends that a new, combined version of the class would correct that problem.

Except for about 50 students who are unable to read at the high school level and would be placed in “1 Humanities with Support,” he would put the rest of the students in what is now 1 Humanities Honors, but only those who achieve at the highest level would be granted honors credit, which adds a half point to one’s grade point.

That is, while a “B” counts as 3 points in a regular course, an Honors B counts as 3.5. He feels that this gives all students an opportunity to put their academic life in order and aim towards the top while still in their freshman year, regardless of their scores on a test taken in eighth grade that’s now used to decide whether students are assigned to the honors section.

In the process, he predicts that more students would then become eligible for honors and advanced placement courses as they move through the four years of high school.

“This program would create the foundation for success at ETHS and beyond,” he declared.

While parents, for the most part, who addressed the board last night expressed the hope that this outcome would occur, many of them were doubtful that this would happen.

Instead, they feared that the classes, populated by so many students at lower academic levels, would sap the energy of the teachers and would fail to challenge the top students to do their very best, thereby lessening their chances to gain acceptance by some of the nation’s premier universities.

One parent even suggested that if the new program failed to achieve its objectives, the outcome could adversely affect the good reputation of the school and result in a decline in the market value of Evanston homes.

Many parents suggested that the school system take its time and experiment, rather than changing the current system next year. “This proposal tries to do too much too soon,” said Mindy Wallis, a parent. She suggested that the Board pilot the program first to see if it works. Others made similar suggestions. “Measure twice, cut once,” admonished the father of three children, aged 11-15. “Move slowly on this. Do it in a way that unifies the community,” he said.

A number of teachers and students at the school provided input as well. They were, for the most part, in favor of the proposal.

While most of the speakers during public comment exceeded their allowed three minutes, one ended with some 80 seconds remaining on the clock. He requested that the balance of his time be spent in silent contemplation. With the clock ticking past 10 p.m., the Board rejected his request and went on with the meeting.

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...

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1 Comment

  1. a general class called “honors” accomplishes…what?

    From the report you gave…

    "Except for about 50 students who are unable to read at the high school level and would be placed in ‘1 Humanities with Support,’ he would put the rest of the students in what is now 1 Humanities Honors, but only those who achieve at the highest level would be granted honors credit, which adds a half point to one’s grade point."

    There is no problem with having a class open to everyone and giving the top achievers the grade point boost. Top acheivers move ahead whatever the hurdles placed before them. But what baffles me is – why call the class honors if the name in itself has no meaning? It’s deliberate deception with what aim? To fool the students? The parents? Educators themselves?

    When I went to ETHS I was terrible in math. It wouldn’t have mattered what the class was called, I was terrible at math. Far from longing to be in an "honors" class, I felt bad holding up the class and just wanted to be outta there so others who knew what was going on and could benefit from the lessons could do so. I could feel there impatience as I fumbled with some basic idea and it was perfectly understandable that they wanted to get on with it. If there had been a remedial math class, I would have volunteered to be in it because then I would have been with others who were as slow as I was and able to stay with a teacher patiently going through basic lessons until we got it as best we could.

    That might have allowed me to begin to understand what was going on with math instead of blindly trying to follow steps the meaning of which were (and still are) beyond me. Far from getting the understanding which is the goal of true education, I frantically tried and failed to even get an operational idea of math (operational means learning to follow steps without knowing why one does them).

    What happens to those in this "honors" class who are like I was? Giving it a fancy name just loads on more stress for them without giving them the basics they need at a pace they can follow. After struggling and barely surviving (if they do) the kids can say they were in an "honors" class when they know full well it was just a class for everyone. Is a D in "honors" better than a B in remedial when there is no grade-point difference?

    Who thinks up this stuff? It seems the schools are crucifying themselves over this kind of thing – it’s not "what are we doing" but "what do we want it to look like we are doing". We aren’t all equally skilled in any area – so address the needs of individuals, not the names of classes. Twisting words around to create appearances with no content is called sophistry, the students see right through it, and it’s unworthy of the time of educators. To get an education, you have to be involved, engaged with the content of the curriculum, not what courses are called. Does anyone have any evidence that "the name game" has any bearing on academic achievement? If so, please link to it!

     

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