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October 19, 2005

A History of Changes at West

Last spring a longtime parent at West HS was asked to write a description -- content area by content area -- of the curriculum changes that have occurred at West HS in recent years that have affected the academic opportunities of West's "high end" students. Below you will find what she wrote. It includes changes that have actually occurred; changes that may and probably will occur; and important questions about what else may happen in the future.

This summary was then forwarded to two other longtime West parents for their comments. Excerpts from those comments may be found just after the original description. Next, the description of each content area was sent to the appropriate department head at West, for their comment with the goal being to produce a brief, descriptive document that everyone would agree was factually accurate, for educational and advocacy purposes. Unfortunately, none of the department heads responded.

Here is the original description:

1. English

a. A few students gifted in English used to be permitted to begin taking upper-level English courses beginning 2nd semester of 9th grade, based upon their English teacher's recommendation, outstanding performance during their 1st semester at West, and the availability of open slots in appropriate courses that fit the student's schedule. (Note: this option involves no monetary cost.)

b. The two sections of integrated 9th-grade English/Social Studies were eliminated as of the 2003-2004 academic year. The primary purpose of these experimental courses -- very similar in philosophy to the SLCs -- was to provide an opportunity for one English and one social studies teacher to pair together to partially integrate their curricula and get to know the same group of students, along with the students having the same set of classmates for both classes. "TAG" students were among the ones who self-selected into these courses, creating cluster grouping within mainstreamed classrooms.

c. 10th-grade English core curriculum will likely be introduced in 2006-2007. This change will prevent highly motivated and capable students from having the opportunity to take appropriately challenging courses in English until 11th grade (currently, students get to start choosing from among the English electives in 10th grade). Ultimately, the effect will be a reduction in the number and variety of upper-level English courses West is able to offer.

2. Social Studies

a. 9th-grade Integrated English/Social Studies course was eliminated (see above).

b. The British version of 10th-grade European History was eliminated as an option a couple of years ago when the teacher of this course officially retired. (Note: this teacher still teaches some sections of 10th-grade European History at West.) As with Integrated English/Social Studies, "TAG" students were among the ones who self-selected into this variant of 10th-grade social studies, creating high ability cluster grouping within a mainstreamed classroom.

c. West's Social Studies Department decided this year that underclassmen will no longer be permitted to take 12th-grade elective courses prior to 12th-grade, not even on a space-available basis that would involve no monetary cost. No other department has this restriction. Might they follow suit?

3. Science

a. 9th-grade Accelerated Biology is restricted to one section despite there being approximately four classrooms worth of students who desire each year to take on the extra challenge this class entails (i.e., over 100 students choose to take the optional test for admission into Accelerated Biology each year, some years, many more than that). Budget constraints will likely lead to the elimination of even this one section in the near future unless West is willing to assign all of the students in this class to the same SLC (or have one section per SLC).

b. Will the implementation of a 10th-grade Core include science as well? If so, will everyone take the same Chemistry course in 10th grade, eliminating the variety of science options currently available to 10th-grade students? (Note: at the March 2005 West PTSO meeting, West HS Science Department Chair Mike Lipp stated -- in response to a parent question -- that they would not eliminate the regular Chemistry class because the lack of math content/rigor in Chem Comm ("Chemistry in the Community") would leave West graduates unprepared for chemistry at the UW and other universities.)

4. Math

a. West used to have a course called "Precalculus." It covered Algebra 2/Trigonometry Accelerated and Algebra 3 Accelerated in one year. It was eliminated last year (2003-04). The math staff were needed, instead, for "Algebra I Extended." In addition, it was a controversial course, in that there was disagreement as to how many students could really handle and benefit from it. All of West's remaining "accelerated" math courses are really honors classes, that is, they are not accelerated in pace, as exists at many high schools of excellence in the US. (Important note: the "new" class that will be called "Precalculus" next year is simply Algebra 3 Accelerated with a new name, not the old Precalculus.)

b. With old Precalculus gone, will West now end up having too few students to justify continuing to offer Calculus II starting in 2006-2007? (Note: in order to take Calculus II in high school, a student must take geometry before 9th grade or take a year of math over a summer.) If so, West could end up the only MMSD high school not offering Calculus II.

c. In the future, will most students at West be mainstreamed into "Core Plus" starting in 9th grade? (Note: this would fit well with the plan to have an SLC-based core curriculum in 9th and 10th grade; that is, to have all students take Core Plus from the beginning would make possible a 9th and 10th grade core curriculum in math.) If so, will none of these students be able to take Calculus in high school?

Here are excerpts from the comments of Person #1:

The institutional history corresponds well with my experience and my children's experiences at West.

One other point that is not made is that it used to be easier to take an Independent Study course for credit if you were a high achieving student. ... Also, the school people will point to the option of going to UW as a way of providing for high end kids. [Although this works well for some], I think it is a bad option since the calendars [and daily schedules] do not in any way correspond with one another -- on a daily basis, the UW offers courses on a MW, TR, or MWF schedule, while West offers their courses on a MTWRF schedule. The transportation time and the differences in the class start times means that, essentially, taking a single course at UW makes a massive hole in a student's schedule.

Here are excerpts from the comments of Person #2:

As for science, 10th grade students either take Chemistry acclerated or Chem Com. In 11th grade, there are two physics offerings, Advanced Math Physics or General Physics. In 12th grade, the advanced topics courses in these two areas -- as well as in biology -- are fairly subjective, dependent on teacher interest. By contrast, Memorial students have AP Chem, Physics and Bio, as well as a 9th grade earth science class; additionally, the sequence is taught in the more accepted order, chem, physics and finally, biology. Many Memorial students graduate with 25-45 AP credits; very few West students take any other than calculus, foreign language and/or statistics--10-15 credits. This can make a huge difference in college, either for placement and/or early graduation with its attendant reduction in cost.

Fundamentally, the problem lies with the SLC program. Its primary purpose, despite the social rhetoric, is to homogenize the student body across all variables, including academics. Most of the features that made West a haven for TAG students are eliminated. Taking courses out of the normal sequence will be very difficult and the clustering of students, unless it happens de facto as the result of changes in the middle school curriculum, will disappear. It was this menu of options and flexibility that offset West's weak to non-existent AP program. I would also be very concerned whether a student will be able to participate in UW's Youth Options program; coordinating the university and high school schedules is difficult under the current arrangement with West's variety of courses and times. Youth Options has been a tremendous opportunity for gifted students to expand beyond the typical constraints of the high school curricula. (Note: the State now limits the number of college credits for which a District must pay to 18 per student. Also, the Youth Options Program may well face threat of extinction again in the near future.)

Posted by Jeff Henriques at October 19, 2005 8:27 AM
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