Some 70 parents were in attendance at Monday evening’s PTSO meeting to hear about West High School’s plans for 10th grade English. This was the largest turnout for a PTSO meeting in recent history. Approximately one-third of those there were parents of elementary and middle school students who will be attending West at some point in the future.
The consensus from parents was that they want more discussion of these planned changes, and given the school’s timeline for formalizing next year’s course offerings, these meeetings have to happen soon.
Parents heard from Principal Ed Holmes, English department chair Keesia Hyzer, and from teacher Mark Nepper. What follows is a brief summary of the presentation.
Mr. Holmes explained that the impetus for restructuring 10th grade English was the Small Learning Communities (SLC) grant that West High received two years ago. (West is currently in the second year of a three year grant). This grant has as its goals the improved achievement of all students and the simultaneous reduction of the achievement gap. That grant called for a core curriculum in both 9th and 10th grade. Last year the school implemented a core curriculum for 9th graders wherein students would take their core classes (math, English, social studies, and science) within their SLC. The English department began approaching the challenge of creating a 10th grade core this past January.
Ms. Hyzer reported that, as the English department approached this task, they had 3 areas of focus: their writing program, helping struggling students, and managing the department’s workload. By creating a unified core 10th grade English, there is now an opportunity for teachers and students to spend an entire year together, a unified curriculum means that students won’t be able to circumvent academic rigor in their course selection, and the common experience will provide a springboard for courses in the 11th and 12th grades.
The redesigned curriculum combines aspects of Fundamental and Intermediate Writers Workshop classes, Modern Literature, Writers in Their Times, and Justice.
The school firmly believes that heterogeneously grouped classes is the best way to meet the needs of all students, addressing the wide range of abilities through curriculum differentiation. Keesia Hyzer told parents that the English department will study differentiation over the summer and work to implement it in the classroom.
For students who want more challenge or a more rigorous English experience, West intends to offer the opportunity for an Honors designation. Students would be required to do extra work outside of class and would meet with the Honors coordinator twice a week during lunch for additional discussion/study sessions.
Many parents were skeptical that students would volunteer to do additional work and regularly give up portions of their lunch periods and the opportunities to participate in clubs and other activities for this designation. They questioned why students couldn’t do this work in their daily English classes, and suggested that the school offer an honors section of English 10 within each SLC. They pointed out that students who enjoy literature and want more challenge in English are being punished by having to go outside the regular classroom to get their educational needs met, a situation that doesn’t exist in math or science where academically advanced students can get their needs met in the classroom. While a number of parents were complimentary of the goal of integrating literature and writing within one course and the books that were on the proposed reading list, it was noted that the inclusion of challenging reading material does not automatically make a course rigourous. The speed at which the class moves through the material and the level of discussion can vary widely, depending on who is in the classroom. Also, as a 10th grader reminded us, there is no guarantee that all classes will read all of the books on the reading list.
Several parents also pointed out that no students get their needs met in a heterogenous classroom: Struggling students get discouraged when they compare themselves to high performing students, high end students report boredom and frustration as the class moves slowly so as not to leave students behind, and middle range students get ignored as teachers spend the majority of their time attending to either the high or low achieving students. Differentiation of curriculum has its limits, even for the most skilled teacher.
Mr. Holmes and Ms. Hyzer took questions for about 20 minutes and then left. Parents weren’t ready to end the discussion and continued to talk about the presentation and raise questions for some 40 or so minutes afterwards. One of the biggest questions was “What can we do to get them to listen to us and genuinely take our concerns into consideration?” One answer is to contact the following district staff with your concerns and suggestions: SuperintendentArt Rainwater, Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Schools Pam Nash, West Principal Ed Holmes, English department chair Keesia Hyzer, Director of Teaching and Learning Mary Ramberg, Language Arts and Reading Coordinator Mary Watson Peterson, the Instructional Resource Teachers for Language Arts and Reading in the Middle and High Schools – Sharyn Stumpf and Doug Buehl, District Talented and Gifted Coordinator Welda Simousek, and the Board of Education. Parents can also keep informed by subscribing to the West High PTSO mailing list.
Others who were in attendance are encouraged to add to this report.