ETHS board continues detracking debate

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 stations and business-oriented magazines.

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