Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 is looking to make another wave of changes to its freshman curriculum, which could take effect by the next school year, if approved by the school board.
Assistant Superintendent of Student Learning Laurie Fiorenza will be leading a presentation on the updates to three freshmen courses: history, English and world languages. The changes – which must be sanctioned by the school board and will be up for vote at the Oct. 28 meeting – are part of D200’s stop and start effort to restructure its freshman program to improve equity outcomes.
To put it simply, the district wants an end to an “earned honors approach” and instead promote an “honors for all” strategy for incoming freshmen, Fiorenza said. She said having a tiered system – one that places first-year high school students into one of three course levels – does not “ensure equity for all.” That system is a barrier for students, as it disallows them from learning about themselves and what they could possibly accomplish, she said.
The district plans to remove that tiered system and build one rigorous curriculum for freshmen. Sophomores, juniors and seniors are excluded from this potential academic change and will continue to be offered honors-level or Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Last fall, the board approved similar changes to its freshmen science courses.
“What we believe is that we are able to provide everyone with a high-level honors curriculum, and with scaffolding supports instruction, we believe our students can achieve honors-level work,” Fiorenza said. “They can do honors-level work.”
On Oct. 14, Fiorenza plans to discuss the data that would support the district’s need to revamp its freshman program. One key finding pointed out that 80% of students taking a college prep English course ranked in the 50th percentile on the PSAT 8/9 exam, she said. That means, those students “are capable of honors-level work,” she said. Those students are either not choosing to take the honors classes or not being recommended by their teachers, she said.
Fiorenza said the concept of restructuring the freshman program is all about allowing students the chance to grow and to try. Without changing the program, this idea of “perceived ability” remains – that “we can just know what you’re capable of,” she said.
“By restructuring this curriculum,” Fiorenza said, “we’re making sure that all of our students as freshmen get exposure to this high-level curriculum so that they can discover their capabilities, their [identities] as an academic learner, thereby increasing that opportunity at the sophomore level and beyond for honors and AP classes.”
Board President Sara Dixon Spivy said if the board were to approve the curriculum changes for the history, English and world languages classes, the division heads for those courses plan to host multiple sessions for families with incoming freshmen. Those sessions could possibly take place in early November, immediately following the Oct. 28 meeting.
Teachers have been refining, polishing and finishing draft units, and their work has been rich and encouraging, Fiorenza said.
Spivy said while she can’t predict how the board will vote, she shared that the district, for years, has struggled to repair the opportunity gap for students. She noted that Superintendent Greg Johnson, who previously served as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, has led the charge on restructuring the freshman program and believed that this may be the “fairest” way to “address differences in achievement.”
Spivy said it’s important to also remember that these potential changes will impact freshmen only and involve a select number of classes that administrators feel are best suited to this structure.
As for Fiorenza, she said changes to the freshman program, if approved, move the district’s equity mission forward.
“As educators, we have a collective responsibility and a collective belief that we are educators because we can change student outcomes,” she said. “That’s why we’re here.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Laurie Fiorenza is the director of student learning at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Fiorenza is the assistant superintendent of student learning at OPRF.