Close to 200 parents and community members packed the Tutoring Center at Oak Park and River Forest High School, 200 N. Scoville Ave., Sept. 19, to ask questions and express their opinions about the District 200 administration’s plans to end the practice of dividing freshmen into college placement and honors curriculum levels beginning with the 2021-22 school year.
D200 officials first announced their plans in August, but the spirit of the measure (that something needs to be done about the racial inequities underlying OPRF’s advanced educational offerings) has been at least 30 years in the making, which many officials and community activists emphasized in response to those in attendance who said the move took them by surprise and that its rollout, so far, has been rather murky.
Other people in attendance expressed concerns that the curriculum change might lead to diminished academic rigor for high-achieving students, although that sentiment seemed less popular than the general support that the measure received from audience members who spoke during last week’s community meeting — the first of four the district has scheduled this year.
“Why did this come about now?” asked one parent. “You have lost my confidence based on the lack of transparency on how this is implemented.”
Another parent chided district officials for convening a community discussion only “after you’ve decided to do this and already told us what the program will look like. That’s the part I really have a hard time about.”
Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said that a potential redesign of the freshman curriculum was in the district’s strategic plan when she was hired in 2016, adding that multiple stakeholders, including teachers, students and community members, have provided their input on the changes. The superintendent also said she has regularly provided updates to board members.
Pruitt-Adams said the decision to move forward with the curriculum change was hers to make — not the school board’s — as it falls within her authority as superintendent. She also countered the notion that the district is springing the curriculum change on parents.
“We are bringing this out two years in advance,” she said. “We didn’t wait till the summer of 2022 to say, ‘Here it is.'”
John Duffy, a longtime Oak Park education activist and head of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE) said the dialogue and exploration around the district’s curriculum goes back 30 years, and the need to change it has been highlighted in multiple D200 reports on equity drafted in 2003, 2008 and 2011.
Greg Johnson, assistant superintendent, said elimination of the freshman-level college preparatory curriculum only applies to the English, history, science and world languages divisions — not math. He said the district is not planning on getting rid of any honors or AP courses.
The purpose of the freshman curriculum change, district officials said, is to open up access to more advanced educational offerings for students at OPRF by grouping all freshmen into a single, high-level curriculum that will allow all of them the opportunity to earn honors credits if their academic performance meets certain standards, as opposed to receiving honors credits by earning an A or B in an honors-level class.
District officials said students will be able to get an “earned honors” credit by completing a variety of assessments and projects. The credit will only come at the end of the course. One parent, however, cautioned officials to avoid a potential pitfall related to the language.
“When you talk about earned honors, it makes it seem like the kids who are currently taking honors classes haven’t earned the honors they’re getting,” said one parent. “They’re up to 11 p.m. or midnight, they’re doing hours and hours of homework and writing all these papers. So just a caution.”
The vast majority of incoming freshmen at OPRF perform at or above the college readiness mark on the PSAT standardized examination, but most black and Latinx students are placed into a college preparatory track as freshmen, which is far less rigorous than the honors track, district officials said. As they go into their high school years, officials added, the proficiency gap between them and their white counterparts only widens.
“Eighty-four percent of students sitting in college prep classes can meet the honors requirement as set forth by the College Board,” said Laurie Fiorenza, the district’s director of student learning. “That’s the point. That’s a huge chunk of our students who are ready for an honors challenge, but they’re sitting in a class that’s college prep.”
“Kids come to us across the board hitting these college-readiness benchmarks, or coming very close to hitting them, but over time we see that the gap widens and we must take that seriously as a school system,” Johnson said. “We talk about it, but we must take it seriously in our actions as well.”
Some people at last week’s meeting wondered aloud whether the best solution is in the status quo. Why don’t more students who feel like they have the ability to perform well in honors courses simply enroll in honors courses?
“Every eighth-grade student does not know who they are capable of being,” Fiorenza said. “They don’t.”
One of the most poignant criticisms among those audience members who spoke was leveled at the fact that some of the changes D200 officials are looking to implement in 2021-22 are already in place, to varying degrees.
For instance, students in some classes already get earned honors credit, but even district officials conceded that the implementation has been somewhat bumpy and some parents in attendance said their students have had difficulty adjusting to the program. Johnson and Fiorenza said more kinks in the program need to be worked out and additional professional development will happen before the curriculum change is finalized in 2021-22.
“Thank you for doing this,” said one parent of an OPRF sophomore and a recent graduate whose remarks were met with applause. “There’s intrinsic value to having classrooms that aren’t segregated and that look like our communities, so when there are discussions about history, politics and literature, the people involved in those conversations are not homogenous.”