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Freshman honors proposal gets mixed reception at ETHS

They had to set up extra chairs for the 100 or so spectators, mostly concerned parents, who turned out for Monday night’s meeting of the Evanston Township High School Board to hear Superintendent Eric Witherspoon deliver an impassioned call for changing the freshman Humanities Honors program at the school.

They had to set up extra chairs for the 100 or so spectators, mostly concerned parents, who turned out for Monday night’s meeting of the Evanston Township High School Board to hear Superintendent Eric Witherspoon deliver an impassioned call for changing the freshman Humanities Honors program at the school.

He said the proposed change “will open doors and push students to greater achievement.”

But not all parents were convinced. About half of the 20 public comments after Witherspoon’s presentation expressed grave doubts that the program would achieve its intended outcomes.

Messages on the Internet over the weekend after the proposal was made available on the district’s web site warned that the 1 Humanities Honors class was being dropped. Witherspoon countered that not only was it not being dropped but that it was being expanded to include all students that were at grade level in reading. It was the current mixed-level (regular and Honors) class that would be discontinued, to be replaced by the Honors curriculum. However, not all students in the class would receive Honors credit, he said, only those that achieved at an Honors level.

This added a bit of uncertainty that bothered some parents as well as some Board members.

Suppose a student qualified for Honors credit one semester, but failed to do so the next? To a prospective college examining the transcript, it might look as if the student dropped out of Honors after one semester, and that would not look good.

Other comments raised doubts about the ability of teachers to differentiate between students at different levels in delivering the material. Lower level students, for example, might be overwhelmed at reading the Odyssey, while it would be a welcome challenge for a more advanced student. How would a teacher deal with that?

Another parent said, “Apparently we’ve done a poor job of tracking. How can we make tracking work better?”

Other persons commented favorably on the proposal, particularly those with African-American students, who feel that their students were unfairly placed in regular classrooms when they might be in a position to excel with a more challenging curriculum. “This puts everyone on a level playing field” was a common refrain.

In fact, that was one of the principal reasons cited by Witherspoon for starting everyone at the same level so that motivated students would have a better chance of success in high school. Brain research indicates, he said, that people can get smarter as they mature. He predicted rather confidently that the new arrangement would result in more students qualifying for Honors and Advance Placement in later years.

Board President Rachel Hayman thanked the public for their comments and assured them that their concerns would be addressed. She noted that the issue will be discussed at the next two meetings of the Board, on Nov. 22 and 29, before the board votes on it at its Dec. 13 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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