Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 administrators announced on Feb. 27 that they will delay restructuring of the freshman curriculum, a plan conceived to help eliminate the opportunity gap between white students and students of color.
The restructuring, which seeks to end the practice of dividing incoming freshmen into separate college placement and honors curriculum levels, was initially scheduled to start for the 2021-22 school year.
Administrators said that due to a variety of issues related to the rollout, they’ll need to extend the start date until fall 2022.
“We have been working together to ensure that the majority of our freshman students experience one high-level, rigorous curriculum in English, history, science and world languages; we are also making curricular adjustments in math,” according to a joint statement released on Feb. 27 by the school’s administration and the Faculty Senate.
“Over the past several months, we have started developing the new curriculum, identifying professional development needs, and establishing support structures to ensure that all students benefit from the shift. In the course of the process, one thing has become clear: in order to carry out our plan with fidelity, the implementation date must be shifted to the fall of 2022.”
Sheila Hardin, the president of OPRF’s Faculty Senate, said that during the school board meeting on Feb. 27 that one major reason for changing the implementation date was because of the looming deadline for teachers to make proposals for new courses.
“Course proposals go out in October, so if there was going to be a new course for the fall of 2021, you’d need to have the proposal and a good outline of [the course] by the time you return to school in the fall,” Hardin said, adding that the extension should not be interpreted as a lack of urgency on the part of faculty members to carry out the curriculum changes, which many D200 officials consider essential to opening up access to more rigorous course content to black and brown students.
During an interview with Wednesday Journal last year, Laurie Fiorenza, the district’s director of student learning, said 84 percent of students in college prep classes can meet the requirements to do honors-level work. Despite this fact, most black and brown students at OPRF are placed into the college preparatory track as freshmen, which is less rigorous than the honors track, officials said back then.
“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,” Fiorenza said.
Opponents of the curriculum change have argued that they could lead to diminished academic rigor for high-achieving OPRF students, among other possible consequences.
During Thursday’s board meeting, D200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said the delay in launching the curriculum changes is necessary to ensure that they’re implemented effectively.
Echoing Hardin, Pruitt-Adams added that a delay in launching the changes does not necessarily mean that there’s been a delay in the process of preparing for the rollout.
“Things will be happening throughout the process,” she said. “The work is not stopping. The additional urgency to it is that when we do it, we do it right.”
Greg Johnson, D200’s associate superintendent, said that administrators will return to the board in the spring with a “more detailed plan” that includes updates relating to professional development, the quality of the proposed curriculum and other specifics.
Most board members, however, expressed concerns about delay.
“Why is this project being viewed as a big-bang implementation, where all this work needs to be completed before we start down a path to make changes and have we considered breaking the project up in some other way?” board member Craig Iseli asked.
Johnson said he doesn’t think that “stretching out” and “parceling out” the implementation over different time periods “would effectively capture the problem we’re aiming to address.”
Johnson added that the inequities that administrators observed were not particular to one division; rather, those inequitable outcomes were systemic and reflective of “how the whole school functions.”
He said that the extended timeline would allow administrators to more effectively address this systemic inequity with the necessary “fidelity” the work requires.
Board member Ralph Martire recommended that administrators develop a “rubric with outcomes that you expect to be generated over the process in each of the divisions that show you’re moving ahead of pace to meet this new deadline.”
“By reporting that to the board, I think it creates a lot more transparency on the progress to the community, because as board members we’re not sitting in those meetings, we don’t know what’s going on and don’t see the depths of the work you’re doing at the faculty level,” he said.
“I will say it has been disappointing to arrive at this point and not have all of the information,” said board president Jackie Moore. “It makes it very challenging to set forth goals, to know how we’re doing our strategic plan, to communicate to our communities about being ambassadors for this work.”
Board member Tom Cofsky said the extended timeline also presents a political quagmire. The terms of four of the seven members of this board, which unanimously supports the freshman curriculum changes, are due to expire in 2021. That means that final approval for the curriculum changes could be up to a new board majority that may and may not support them.
“You have the support of this board, but we’re pushing it to the next board in terms of approval and timeline,” said Cofsky, whose own term expires next spring. “Secondly, the timing of this will then happen during teacher contract negotiations. The focus needs to be 100 percent on the best interests of our students.”
“I don’t want us to get to next February and be having this conversation again,” said board member Gina Harris, before pointing out that there are still vocal critics of the curriculum changes.
“I don’t want us to lose sight of the fact that there are people who do not understand the importance of this work,” Harris said.