The Oak Park and River Forest District 200 Board of Education voted unanimously Oct. 28 to approve a major change to three freshman courses. Come next fall, OPRF freshmen will be placed in one rigorous, high-level course for history, English and world languages, instead of being split up into honors or college prep tracks.
The vote came after nearly three weeks of discussions among board members, district faculty and staff and families. On Oct. 26, two days before the board meeting, Superintendent Greg Johnson, Assistant Superintendent of Learning Laurie Fiorenza and division heads Amy Hill (history), Brain Conant (English), Claudia Sahagun (world languages) and Matt Kirkpatrick (Science) held a Zoom webinar and fielded pre-submitted queries from parents.
Last year, the board moved to “detrack” – or remove a tiered system that groups students by their academic abilities – and offer a single science class for freshmen. Sophomores, juniors and seniors are not part of these changes and maintain the option of taking honors-level or Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
During the Oct. 28 meeting, board member Ralph Martire asked Fiorenza a string of questions, spotlighting repeated concerns from parents on the district’s plans to restructure its freshman curriculum. Martire said one question that pops up often is whether changes to the freshman curriculum would “reduce the rigor” for “top-scoring students” to which Fiorenza responded “absolutely not.”
Martire also confirmed with Fiorenza that recent school data has shown students, honors and college prep alike, have a wide range of learning abilities. In previous presentations, Fiorenza specifically cited results from a 2019 PSAT 8/9 exam which revealed that 80% of students in a college prep English course scored in the 50th percentile. That meant, students were “capable of honors-level work,” Fiorenza previously told Wednesday Journal.
“You see that the one distinguishing factor happens to be that most of the students – the vast majority of the students – tracked into honors happen to be white and a disproportionate number of students tracked into the lower courses happen to be minorities?” Martire, who serves as the board secretary, asked Fiorenza.
“Absolutely,” Fiorenza told Martire. “The data is very clear about that.”
Martire concluded his comments by saying that it seemed this approach – restructuring the freshman curriculum – is “the best practice that’s in the interest of all our children.”
Other board members, including Gina Harris and Kebreab Henry, echoed Martire’s sentiments. The two talked about an “inherent” idea or fear caught up in the concept of restructuring the freshman curriculum.
“There is an inherent idea that because we are making it available to everyone that it has to be ‘dumbed down,’ and that idea comes from an idea of supremacy,” Harris said. “That it can only come from one place.”
Henry said he had looked over the emails families have sent to the board and seen at least three common viewpoints. There were some parents who were worried about how the district will implement a new curriculum plan, while others saw the restructured freshman curriculum as a step toward addressing the district’s academic inequities.
“The third viewpoint I’ve been seeing is rather disappointing,” Henry said. “It’s disappointing because it involves statements such as ‘elite, high-performing students will suffer academically because we’re trying to help a certain group of students.’”
“There’s [an] inherent fear of having more children of color in classes with white students who are deemed as high-performing,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned throughout my life is that racism doesn’t go away. … Failed racism is still racism – even if the intent is not especially stated. The result is the same: It’s inflicted harm, pain and trauma.”
Before the vote, several parents and community members weighed in on whether the board should update three more freshman courses and continue D200’s efforts to restructure the freshman curriculum.
OPRF parent Meg Lewis, who spoke during public comment, said she supported the district’s proposed plans and wished her daughters could be part of those new courses.
“My own experience with my daughters who are both Black and both in the honors track is that it’s an extremely isolating experience for them,” she said. “When I looked at the memo that was put out along with this agenda, and it noted that in honors English classes, 7% of students are Black, what that means in a class of 28 students, I believe is, is about two Black students.”
“That’s pretty much what my children’s experience was in taking honors classes,” Lewis added. “I think they lost out because of that. I think that the message was sent to them and to other students.”
Other speakers, including OPRF parent Ross Lissuzzo and former D200 school board president John Phelan, remained unconvinced that the district’s restructured freshman curriculum would have such an impact on students. They also voiced concerns over the board members’ and district administrators’ lack of robust discussions with the community.
“The worst part is that there’s struggling students who need our help,” Phelan said, adding the cause of academic disparities has yet to be uncovered and the board’s vote that night was a “symbolic gesture” and “distraction from real solutions.”