Board fields parents’ concerns

Brian Rosenthal

About 15 Evanston Township High School parents showed up for a school board meeting Monday to hear about 25 proposed curriculum changes for the next school year.

The parents in attendance ignored 24 of them and focused on one that has already erupted into controversy.

The proposal, already instituted for this school year, eliminated honors-only senior English classes in favor of mixed-level classes. The mixed-level courses, which include a range of students with test scores from the 40th to 94th percentiles, were designed to increase rigor among low-achieving students.

“It’s about our kids having intellectual, stimulating and rigorous discussion in core curriculum,” said board president Martha Burns.

Some studies have shown that mixed-level classes have a positive impact on all students. The classes, district officials argue, provide encouragement to lower-achieving students while increasing the “cultural education” of higher-achieving students.

Speaking to the board Monday night, parents said they didn’t see it that way.

“What I see here, and what my son is experiencing, is indisputably a dumbing-down of the curriculum,” said Steve Greenberger, whose son is a sophomore. “What all kids need is instruction that is geared to their level.”

Greenberger and eight other parents argued that instead of bringing up the lower-achieving students, the mixed-level courses were bringing down the high achievers.

Drawing on the experiences of their children, the parents also argued that teachers were struggling to accommodate the wide range of students they were entrusted with.

“It seems counterintuitive to me that differentiated teaching with such a wide range is really possible at the high school level,” said Tammy Claman, who has a junior at ETHS. “It doesn’t really make a lot of sense that even the best teacher in the world could really serve all the kids in the class.”

The majority of parents against the courses said they supported the idea of mixed-level classes, but opposed the hasty way in which they were implemented at the senior English level.

The classes were put in place over the summer without warning. Seniors showed up for school on the first day of classes with no idea that they would be placed in a mixed class, administrators acknowledged.

“The mixed class is a perfect idea, but this was done in a way that teachers were unprepared,” said Julia Rapisarda, the mother of an ETHS senior. “I ask you to think long and hard before you makes these changes permanent.”

Board members were visibly shaken by the comments. Following the parent speeches, Burns broke from the agenda to deliver her position.

“I applaud you for coming out,” said Burns, who said she didn’t plan to speak but felt like she had to. “But I feel like your comments are self-serving a specific group of students and it does not address the whole student body in this school.”

Burns, who has been involved in Evanston education for 20 years, announced her personal e-mail address and asked parents to contact her to continue the discussion.

She said the achievement gap was a problem that simply had to be addressed.

“The only thing I see that is obvious at this school is there are two schools operating here,” Burns said. “Whatever we have to do, we gotta do it, people. This is 2008. We got to do it. This is something that I have struggled with for many, many years.”

The school board will hold a forum to discuss the classes on Nov. 24 at 7:30 p.m. in the ETHS auditorium.

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