Community debates ETHS ‘mixed honors’ classes for freshmen

Megan Crepeau

The Evanston Township High School administration’s plan to revamp its freshman humanities regimen proved polarizing yet again during a community forum Wednesday hosted by district officials.

“Change is very different and not welcomed in any institution,” said Judith Treadway. “(Let’s) focus on changing the culture of education at ETHS.”

Under the administration’s plan, all average-level ETHS freshmen would be placed in “mixed honors” classes with their higher-achieving peers for English and history. The top 5 percent would stay in all honors classes, and the lowest scorers would stay in remedial classes.

The overhaul is part of the school’s response to government-mandated restructuring – ETHS has failed No Child Left Behind for five years in a row, and it faces further consequences if it cannot prove to the state by May that it is on its way to higher test scores.

District officials outlined the proposal before opening the floor to comments from the crowd of about 150.

“This is what makes a community stronger,” said Evanston Township High School District 202 Superintendant Eric Witherspoon. “And, more importantly, this is what’s going to make it a stronger school for our students. That’s community building.”

But most of the residents who commented fell into two camps: those who believe the plan is well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed and those who believe it’s a good start but does not go far enough.

Lawrence Marks, a teacher at Oakton Community College, said it is a challenge to teach students of varying ability levels.

“Either I’m going to bore the hell out of my top students or I’m going to lose the bottom students,” he said. “For some teachers there is really going to be a nightmare.”

ETHS officials responded that they were confident teachers could handle mixed classes.

“(Students) aren’t all alike,” said Judith Ruhana, chair of the ETHS English department. “That’s 25 kids in a class at 25 levels. Educators know you educate everybody in the class.”

Attendees heatedly discussed the race issue. One goal of the restructuring is bringing minority students, who administrators said historically under-perform, into higher-level classes.

Many commended the administration for attempting to address the achievement gap and the possibility of institutional racism.

“In my mind, ETHS is a big bowl of bean soup, and in the middle there is an 800-pound cracker that nobody is saying anything about,” said ETHS English teacher Fred Schenck. “We need to bust up that cracker.”

ETHS honors student Naomi Daughtry said she agreed.

“We always want to say that we’re diverse, but the thing that itches me is that you go into these honors classes and it is not diverse,” she said as the audience applauded.

Several of those who commented said the achievement gap could only be solved by abolishing class levels altogether.

“Equality doesn’t come by placing kids in honors,” said ETHS history teacher Chala Holland. “I cannot support moving students through the structure out of false empathy. We do not need empathy, we need education.”

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