Education leaders from Oak Park and River Forest High School are looking for support from the District 200 Board of Education on a measure that aims to revamp three freshman courses by the 2022-23 school year. The plan — part of the district’s effort to restructure its freshman curriculum — aims to create a rigorous, high-level course for history, English and world languages, instead of dividing students into college prep or honors tracks. 

“All students deserve the opportunity to explore and develop their interests and abilities free of a track,” said Laurie Fiorenza, assistant superintendent of Student Learning, during the Oct. 14 board meeting. 

Last fall, the board approved “detracking” — or removing a tiered system that separates students by ability — and offer a single science course for freshmen. Sophomores, juniors and seniors are excluded from this change and have the option of taking honors-level or Advanced Placement (AP) courses. The board plans to vote on changes to the freshman history, English and world languages courses on Oct. 28 at the regular board meeting. 

Fiorenza, who led the presentation on Thursday, appeared in front of the board alongside division heads Amy Hill (history), Brian Conant (English), and Claudia Sahagun (world languages), and addressed the potential changes to their coursework. Hill, Conant and Sahagun talked about the work their departments have done over the past two years to revamp their curricula and give their students access to an equitable education. They focused on their end goals, outlined their course standards to meet those set by the College Board, AP, or the state, and identified students’ skills. 

Hill said her history teachers have already taught joint classes with college prep and honors students. What they found, she said, was that the college prep students were capable of doing the work in an honors-level course and were successful, especially when teachers offered consistent support. Survey results from students who participated in those joint classes backed the history department’s findings. 

According to a survey, 95% of students believed their teacher thought all students were able to do the challenging school work, Hill said. Students also rated their teachers highly for cultivating a positive space, connecting their studies to life outside the classroom and encouraging them to share ideas. The same responses came from students who participated in joint world language classes, said Sahagun, adding that 90% of students felt a “sense of belonging in their class.” 

For Hill and Sahagun, those student experiences show the impact of a restructured freshman program and embraces the district’s mission of inclusion. In a previous interview with Wednesday Journal, Fiorenza explained that eliminating the “earned honors approach” and promoting an “honors for all” strategy allows students, especially those of color, a chance to discover their abilities. 

“We know that perceptions and expectations are powerful. They have self-fulfilling effects,” Fiorenza said to the board during the Oct. 14 meeting. “Teachers have expectations of students. Students have expectations of themselves. If expectations are constructed around faulty perceptions, then low expectations can result.” 

“If a student believes they are not a good student, they expect to fail and subsequently could have lower grades,” she added. “Likewise, when a teacher believes that a student is capable of challenging work, they expect the student to succeed and subsequently higher grades are more likely.” 

During the presentation, Fiorenza pointed out some data that helped prove why restructuring the freshman curriculum is vital. Among her findings, Fiorenza said 80% of students in a college prep English course scored in the 50th percentile on the PSAT 8/9 exam in 2019. That meant students can do the work and have a range of learning abilities and that the district must provide a pathway so all students, including those of color, have an opportunity to succeed, she said. 

Fiorenza added that there are many reasons why students, especially those of color, do not sign up for honors-level classes. Some research showed students of color, especially those who are Black, were worried about being “ostracized” or “being the only” in honors-level courses, while others feared they would not fit in or meet their or their teachers’ expectations, she explained. 

“It’s only when a parent or mentor challenge[s] the perception directly that changes how students see themselves as learners,” Fiorenza said to the board. 

‘A system based on opportunity, not barriers’

That tidbit hit home for board member Kebreab Henry. He knew all too well what it meant to be a Black student and feel isolated in a classroom. Back in high school, Henry said he was one of the only Black students taking International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. His school, he said, was predominantly Black, but the IB program was predominantly white.  

“I oftentimes tried to quit but was interrupted by my mother saying, ‘You’re not leaving that program,’” he said, adding his own daughter, a 2020 OPRF graduate, also felt secluded “from her peers who looked like her” while taking AP courses all through high school. 

Other board members, Ralph Martire, Gina Harris and Mary Anne Mohanraj, chimed in, expressing a preference for a restructured freshman program. 

“If we want to make structural changes to get better outcomes across the board, you look at the system itself and what interventions in the system can you make that have a rational opportunity to create those better outcomes,” said Martire, who serves as the board secretary. “You made that case. You made an evidence-based case. Congratulations. I think it’s the right thing to do.” 

Board member Fred Arkin also voiced concerns over the misconceptions that families may have about revamping the freshman program. Arkin cited a recent Facebook post where a person commented on the district’s detracking as an initiative to eliminate honors and AP courses, which is not the case. 

“What I’m hearing tonight, is that we’re eliminating college prep and putting [all freshmen] in honors,” Arkin said before asking district officials how they will address the misinformation on this topic. 

Superintendent Greg Johnson responded to Arkin by first encouraging families to attend a Zoom webinar about restructuring the freshman curriculum on Oct. 26. The virtual event will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. More information about the webinar and details and updates on the freshman curriculum can be found on the school’s website at https://www.oprfhs.org/academics/access-for-all

Johnson also said D200 will be working with nearby elementary school districts and talking with families about how these potential changes could impact their incoming freshmen. 

Beyond that, Johnson maintained the district has never claimed to get rid of elective, honors and AP courses.

“How do we correct information about something that we’ve never said? That’s hard. I don’t know exactly how we do that,” he said to Arkin. “But what I do know is that we can communicate out insistently, ‘This is what we are about.’”

While district officials and some board members advocated for a restructured freshman curriculum, there were dozens of parents and teachers who spoke during public comment and had mixed feelings about the possible change. 

One parent, Laura Huseby, said when her son was a freshman at OPRF, he “did not enjoy science, did not have an aptitude for science and was frankly concerned about taking a science class.” Though Huseby’s son was placed in an honors biology class, he opted for a non-honors course. 

Huseby, a teacher herself, said what she didn’t know was that her son’s teacher was giving non-honors students honors-level work. The class was too hard for her son and for many other students like him to keep up, she recalled. 

“Please, I implore you as a board to not take away a parent’s right to make choices for their student based on their child’s strengths and weaknesses,” she said, adding her son walked away with a terrible grade that still haunts him. “Give us the opportunity to choose a non-honors class for our student if we feel that’s what they are personally capable of handling. We parents know best our child’s strengths and weaknesses.” 

Ross Lissuzzo, another OPRF parent, remained skeptical about D200’s plans to restructure its freshman curriculum. He believed it could “help some children and will likely hold others back. “Common sense tells us the new classroom experience will likely end up somewhere in between the current honors and college preparatory rigor level.” 

Other speakers such as Melanie McQueen, co-president of the African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education (APPLE), and Dot Lambshead Roche, a former teacher, expressed their excitement about a restructured freshman curriculum and the effect this will have on OPRF students, especially those of color. 

McQueen said that some people have understood detracking as “dumbing down” or “watering down” the curriculum to meet Black students, specifically Black teenage boys who mostly make up the college prep courses, where they are at — and that’s incorrect. She encouraged naysayers, or those on the fence about detracking, to pay attention to the presentation.  

“We have asked for detracking,” she said. “We have a board that understands the assignment. We have students who will also understand the assignment and take our school report card to [show] data that the state has never seen.” 

Echoing McQueen, Roche opened up about her past experiences teaching high school freshmen in both non-honors and honors-level courses. She said she has watched her students in her non-honors courses become “stifled, limited and bored” when they go unchallenged and saw them rise to the occasion when given the chance. 

“We can and should create a system rooted in access, not exclusion — a system based on opportunity, not barriers,” Roche said. 

To learn more

For more information on the district’s restructured freshman program or the Oct. 26 Zoom webinar, visit https://www.oprfhs.org/academics/access-for-all

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