Parents react to frosh curriculum change

D200's first forum about plan to eliminate freshman college prep courses

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

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." 


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Reader Comments

42 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Comment Policy

Kline Maureen  

Posted: September 30th, 2019 9:25 PM

@Kevin Peppard, it works - at least it did for me. You have to highlight the link and COPY it- then PASTE it into the URL line in your browser.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: September 30th, 2019 4:25 PM

I give up. The WJ system truncates long links

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: September 30th, 2019 4:23 PM

Here is yet another try at pasting a long link. Highlight it and your browser should follow it.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: September 30th, 2019 4:18 PM

The link I gave to the charts is broken. This one should work:

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park & formerly from River Forest  

Posted: September 29th, 2019 8:18 PM

Some of you have asked to see the charts I generated from the Stanford University website. Follow this link:

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: September 28th, 2019 1:02 PM

Steve Lefko (below) is really on to something in looking at the work of Professor Sean Reardon from Stanford, who may be the nation's top expert on Achievement Gaps. He has a database from the No Child Left Behind required reports on every elementary school district in the country, over 10,000 of them. Go to Stanford's site, and you can build your own charts. I made four, selecting all districts in Illinois, with six data points called out.(only six are allowed for labeling): Oak Park, River Forest, Evanston (our favorite base of comparison), nearby Forest Park and Maywood-Melrose Park-Broadview, and Chicago. The charts are: 1) Achievement vs. Socioeconomic Status for All Students. 2) The same for Whites only. 3) The same for Blacks only. 4) A chart showing how each district Improves (or does not) the performance of its students over their eight years, for Blacks only. It's very instructive, and sadly, the data is only for elementary districts. Here is the link to take you there: Once there, click on the menu, and choose "Opportunity Explorer" It's a fascinating site. Use the tools to select what you're interested in. I chose all Illinois districts, and called out the six I mentioned for labeling on the scatter plot. I then chose two different types of chart, and used different groupings of students to focus on.

Chris Weiler  

Posted: September 28th, 2019 3:34 AM

Agree with Jason. The traditional education model is not rooted in differentiation, nor are its teachers trained in this manner. Differentiated environments like Montessori have 2 teachers in each class and is very effective. And this is with combined grade levels... 3-5 year olds (Primary), grades 1-3, 4-6 and 7/8th. The same differentiation continues through high school. In Montessori, we see a built-in, intentional education gap skillfully and artistically managed by a guiding principle that begins on the first day of school... respect for the child. Quite a sharp contrast from the "herding the inmates" attitude expressed at schools like Julian.

Chris Weiler  

Posted: September 28th, 2019 3:27 AM

No high school can fix an education gap that started at age 5 or so in the elementary grades. Too little, too late. Education reform and funding should be concentrated on the elementary schools. It's ridiculous that virtually nothing has changed since I attended the town hall meeting in 2003 regarding these SAME education issues (yes 03'). Now as then, administrators selling and many parents buying yet another new policy name and brand without putting any attention on the underpinnings that support desired educational outcomes... character, curiosity, confidence. Brings to mind the parents who never created meaningful pathways of communication with their young children, yet don't understand why now as teenagers "my kid won't talk with me." To close the education gap, the foundation must be laid in elementary school in partnership with the high school. A middling high school, with its unsolved, long standing education issues still being a separate district with separate budget, yet again exposes how we are unwilling to put our kids and their education first. So many pushing for different educational outcomes but continue using the same ingredients, tools and materials... madness.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 27th, 2019 3:47 PM

I spent a significant amount of time at Julian as parent coach for English. One time will I will never forget is a group of 32 students tasked with writing two paragraphs about hurricane Katrina. Spent time with each students to review structure, flow, grammar etc. 1/5 of class was strong, 3/5 was solid with work required but 1/5 (as I recall about 5 kids) could not write a sentence with noun or verb or spell words such as weather, rain etc. I asked my son how those kids can be in that level English - he shrugged and said, kids get passed along. Even if kids want to put in the work, with that gap, it will be challenging.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: September 27th, 2019 2:22 PM

@ Jason, thanks for your comment. I believe that you and Christopher Bell are in agreement on this-- a first for this OP comment forum? ;-)

Jason Cohen  

Posted: September 27th, 2019 11:53 AM

My biggest concern with this is the ability for the teachers to actually differentiate in a single class. With 25 kids and multiple levels to manage I worry a single teacher won't be enough in each class. This might work better if each class has a student teacher so that they can divide and conquer. Just imagine an English class where one group is deep into the content and breaking it all down and another doesn't even understand the basics. How does one teacher handle that without doing a disservice to both groups? I am supportive of the general idea but I struggle to understand how this will work in reality.

Eric Friedman from Oak Park  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 10:28 PM

It is disappointing how tricky the district is being. To highlight some of the misleading (but maybe partially true) statements they're making: 1. The plan cites academic research finding that removing honors track courses doesn't hurt the top students. Yet the district's communication also completely ignores research saying the opposite. It would be nice to offer a complete picture of the research. 2. The district's claim that they didn't blindside the community with this plan is laughable. It is one thing to announce that a curriculum review is happening, and another thing to decide to blow up the curriculum without putting forward a proposal for community input. 3. The district clearly said that the change only applies to freshmen, and also that the curriculum for all other years would be reviewed in the future. It sure sounded like a hint that they plan to do this for other years, though they refused to discuss it. If a similar plan is being seriously considered for the older students, the district needs to be up-front about it. The district is creating a huge trust problem with its behavior. We deserve better. In addition, the superintendent could easily decide to delay implementation to allow more time for research and community input.

Steve Lefko  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 6:39 PM

I agree with those suggesting Evanston is critical to finding an evidence base to follow. Detracking is no less than an interaction between curriculum changes, challenging peer grouping, novel instruction and new grading systems for which teachers need loads of professional development. We're raced into equity in RF District 90 and the teachers were among the loudest voices. Otherwise, it's easy to pit one piece of research on curriculum, grouping or instruction against another of its kind and go nowhere. It's real examples of detracking, all those things interacting together, that we should be analyzing for evidence and Dr. Shawn Reardon from Stanford's Center for Education Policy does a fantastic job analyzing Evanston after a couple years of implementation at the link below. It's a must watch, go to the last 30 mins if you're short of time and if you plan to watch stop reading here. His conclusion: detracking hasn't reduced the racial predictability of achievement in Evanston and he points out, graciously, that Evanston is trying to fix a problem in high school that started before third grade. He points to early childhood and whole-community solutions as places to have a positive and material impact on closing the gap. Let's make changes to education backed by sound evidence, lets study what did and didnt work at Evanston and why not pit our full commitment to equity by looking at whole-community options before third grade.

Adrian Rohrer  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 1:25 PM

My last comment should have been directed to @Anna Johnson

Adrian Rohrer  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 1:22 PM

@Alice Wellington Though self-reported, there's nothing I've seen to suggest the numbers reported by ETHS in that article are in any way incorrect or inaccurate. The numbers also speak for themselves, and are based on ACT scores and AP enrollment figures, not just the HS subjective opinion. Similar to what OPRF will see, ETHS also saw a massive backlash to the proposal, including in the Tribune. Interestingly, since that backlash in 2010 (when it was implemented), nothing negative has been written that I've seen about de-tracking at ETHS, even though they've actually expanded the subject that are no de-tracked. If it is working there (which ETHS has claimed it is), with Evanston being probably the closets suburb in demographics to OP, I'd like to hear people explain why it won't work here. If it isn't working in Evanston, I look forward to everyone oppossed to it bringing forth the material that outlines de-tracking is failing in Evanston.

Thad Davis  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 12:05 PM

Most won't go on to AP, but hopefully more will. As I understand it that is the goal.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 12:02 PM

@ Thad. Lets step back - the end goal is to close gap and get more kids into advanced classes. So how will simply placing kids in class freshman year accomplish that? AP classes are hard and rigorous with 4/5 hours of homework. Kids are going to go from lower track to AP in one year? of course not They have to address the entire 4 years for it to work long term. You are right - not happening soon - but over long run, it is the only way to accomplish it.

Nick Polido  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 11:55 AM

This was Crystal clear: "We are bringing this out two years in advance. We didn't wait till the summer of 2022 to say, 'Here it is.'" Joylynn Pruitt-Adams

Thad Davis  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 11:55 AM

So you guys think Johnson was lying in minutes 21:00-22:15 of the video, and that their secret goal is, for example, to eventually have a single Junior English course for everyone and call it "AP?"

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 11:45 AM

Also, view the website in context of all information presented. Several articles on complete detracking benefits, several comments addressing college acceptance impact, lack of specifics around next steps. This is all about phases. they know OP can tolerate some of this but would lose our S_it if they rolled it out at once.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 11:35 AM

@ Kevin - of course they are.! it is very clever and subtle. Here is why - we plan to expand AP to all students - well we know if everyone does something, it is no longer most advanced (as everyone cant do the work). Therefore, when colleges look at school (they ask for tracks and number of kids in each) to evaluate how tough kids work is, it will appear as tough there is no AP track.... they are slow playing this. Step one, get people in OP bubble to buy into freshman - tell them it is working out great and then accelerate sophomore - senior.

Thad Davis  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 11:30 AM

De-track several key courses for the freshman year to push as many kids as they can to understand that they are capable of honors-level work such that for grades 10-12 more kids will choose to take more AP (not "AP like") and honors classes. I think this makes perfect sense and thought the presentation was crystal clear on that point.

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park & Previously River Forest  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 11:27 AM

@Thad. I refer you back to the same Slide 14 you mentioned. They're using Orwellian Double Speak. They say they're not de-tracking 9-12, but then they show "Full Implementation" by FY 2025. That is the "plan", and they want to make it happen. I sat through the thing, along with about 180 others.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 11:12 AM

@ Thad. Use logic. why detrack freshman year if to just retrack later years. Yes, the interim step is to observe but long term listen carefully to what is said - said to expand AP like opportunity for all.

Thad Davis  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 11:07 AM

There is no plan to de-track all four years. Greg Johnson made that quite clear. To quote page 14 of the slide deck from the presentation (available on the ORF website): "This is a four year plan to evaluate curriculum; it is not a plan to detrack 9-12."

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 6:58 AM

What has traditionally been OPRF's differentiation is that is does exceptional job with those at Top 15% and those at Bottom 15% while providing a very solid education to those in middle 70%. I was in the middle - I met my counselor 4 times in 4 years. This new strategy is not going to effect the middle it will effect the top and bottom. For the bottom, it will provide them a chance to become middle performing students and for the top, it wont make much of a difference - as kids/families will make sure their kids find a way (in the structure of outside).

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 26th, 2019 6:29 AM

Reviewing the OPRF website does mention detracking the entire school. It also mentions that it was no effect on getting into highly selective schools. That is complete BS as my son just started IVY League and I can assure you number of AP/ is a critical factor (most at top 25 schools have take 10 or more AP). The top factors for admissions a) GPA, b) rigor of coursework ... I think they are doing a disservice by not presenting a balanced approach - and present reality. IF OPRF does away with AP (in name or approach), it will hurt kids getting into really good schools (if that is what they chose). I was a black kid at OPRF and went Triton, U of I and then University of Chicago. I can tell you that a world I never knew existing opended up one I got to U of C. Don't ruin that for kids who put in work ...

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: September 25th, 2019 11:31 PM

Was Michael Romain at the same meeting I was? There was heavy concern expressed by many parents about whether this is folly, and destructive. Instead, he paints a rosy picture. Watch the second half of the video of the event (the questioning by the public) on the D200 website, and you'll see. Many I've talked with don't realize that this will eventually apply to all four years of a student's career. The Board did not approve any of these specifics -- the details were entirely conceived by the Administration, without input from the public or even the feeder districts (D97 & D90).. This is not yet a "done deal" if the Board exercises its oversight duty. There about one-sixth of the non-special ed students who the District itself admits are not college material, and that's with setting a low standard of 410 on the SAT. Verbal.. How will they receive the attention they need? Actually, that's what tracking is about. This is poorly conceived experimentation with our children's education, that could have lasting negative consequences. All so we can feel that "we're doing something".

Alice Wellington  

Posted: September 25th, 2019 10:10 PM

Nice chart you have up there. Now do homework completion chart, listing the percentage of students that consistently complete all their assignments and projects on time.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 25th, 2019 8:46 PM

Thank you Mr. Bell. You hit the nail on the head. Ultimately, the board will get what they have been yearning for and the achievement gap will shrink. But instead of improving the scores of the not so smart/unmotivated kids, they are going to lower the scores of the driven/smart kids. Gap reduced, goal achieved, all the leftists/Marxist/activists in town will hold hands and sing kumbaja.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 25th, 2019 5:47 PM

The core issues which created the gap will still exist. Students passed along in middle school with failing grades, unmotivated teachers, lack of family support, poverty etc. OPRF has limited scope and capability to change those variables and unrealtistic that radical change will occur. Again, parents can already select honors if they choose - this is about changing students views of themselves, taking them off a lower track (will no longer exist) that limits college readiness etc.

Anna Johnson  

Posted: September 25th, 2019 5:38 PM

@ Kathy: At Julian, at least, the only tracking is for math classes. I know many kids who were frustrated in their non-math classes at Julian because they were more motivated than other students. (BTW, most of the goofballs were white boys.) The motivated students I know couldn't wait to get to HS so that they could be in classes with other hard-working students and stop wasting their time. For those students, I worry that 9th grade might be another wasted year.

Anna Johnson  

Posted: September 25th, 2019 5:30 PM

@ Adrian: The article you link here was written by the administrator overseeing Evanston's detracking, and it's not from a peer-reviewed journal, so it is hardly objective evidence. I haven't been able to find any data for Evanston since 2015, which seems odd. Also, other districts that have tried detracking have abandoned it. So I think there is cause for healthy suspicion at least.

Kathy Müller from River Forest  

Posted: September 25th, 2019 4:52 PM

Shouldn't we detrack middle school before we detrack high school?

Adrian Rohrer  

Posted: September 25th, 2019 3:40 PM

I think it's important to note in these discussions, so I'm going to keep doing it when I see them. Evanston used a similar de-tracking strategy several years ago, and it worked, with performance going up for not only students of color, but also among other categories as well. Northwestern is apparently doing a detailed study of Evanston now, and I think you'll see this strategy talked about more and more.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 25th, 2019 2:51 PM

Mixed feelings as African To Ken's point, studies show is kid is one grade behind in reading by 1st, they will be 3 years behind by high school. Simply putting kids together will make those inside the Oak Park bubble feel better but will do little to help that kid actually succeed. There needs to be intensive work and identification of gaps far before OPRF. Students poor performance is due to many more reasons than just academics - for some kids, clean clothes, 3 meals and consistent place to sleep is the win. Some deep thinking around execution, strong execution and support must occur ot this program may drive OPRF futher into mediocrity. OR may be brilliant strategy. Time will tell

Ken Van Spankerswanson from Oak Park  

Posted: September 25th, 2019 2:29 PM

Can we please note that the gap starts very early and that we really need D200 and D97 to work together to address the gap early on? We are one community and those of us that have had kids go from grade to middle to high school know that there is no comity in the programs. Oh, and listen to Chris Bell... good and smart guy.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: September 25th, 2019 11:18 AM

Welcome back, Christopher. Point well taken re. the horse and barn, as well as the very important and necessary goals that the change will hopefully achieve. That said, I also agree with you re. execution of the whatever strategy has been defined to achieve these goals and take it a step further by saying that I'm dubious whether D200 can carry out the plan effectively. The complexity of coordinating this very individualized instruction in a system where a huge gap already exists can only be done with the addition of a lot resources-- staff, time, materials. Unfortunately too much detail is lacking to allow many of us to assess the likelihood of success.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 24th, 2019 5:07 PM

The other thing that is lost in discussion is parents can put their child in any class they choose. Parent can select honors already regardless of where the child tested/performed. The new strategy only works if kids on margin actually benefit and do the heavy lifting. There are institutional basis that hurt our black/brown kids. if parents are not woke or capable of navigating, it will limit ability to take high end classes that top colleges require for college prep.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 24th, 2019 5:01 PM

Given the toothpaste is out the tube per se, the question is not why or when , but what it will take to make it work. Marcus Aurelius was a brilliant strategist and said you must make decisions only based upon best go forward option (hold past constant). Given this decision is made, this comes down to execution which will be very complex. First, students are "slotted" by 6th grade - high, medium, low tracks which will need to be addressed. Having volunteered at Julian across all tracks the gap between high and low is huge (i.e. cant complete sentence with verb and noun) The positive element is 1) gives kids a chance who might not otherwise be able to do honors work 2) provides more diversity in classes. These issues are complex and include family support structure, providing additional enrichment etc. Many of the AP kids do 4-6 hours of homework a night and kids do fail classes. Keeping both ends of spectrum engaged will be a major challenge for teachers. Society is increasingly stratified by income/class and looking at data from that lense will likely be instructive.

Paul Clark  

Posted: September 24th, 2019 4:40 PM

"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. " "Murky" is the operative word in this long sentence.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: September 24th, 2019 4:16 PM

3 comments, and I'm especially sorry that Christopher Bell is not here to sound off on this: 1. Can this journalist PLEASE try at least a little to write in a more balanced way and not inject his opinion into a straight reporting piece. He should know that there's a place for his opinion, called interestingly enough "Opinion," 2. if this is the answer to the call from the "community" that "something needs to be done about the racial inequities underlying OPRF's advanced educational offerings," this argument is really about whether this something is the RIGHT thing, and 3. given a little thing called the law of averages, I see no other realistic outcome than a decrease in the overall measure of achievement by the class. The WSJ today had a very interesting article about how average SAT scores have now FALLEN nationwide as more and more students take the test.

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