Teachers’ union raises concerns about training, lack of input on curriculum changes
By Maria Archangelo
The Essex Reporter
Rumors about Essex High School cutting its honors and AP classes swirled on social media and email this week after administrators met with teachers to discuss potential curriculum changes.
Fears about the loss of advanced-level classes were unfounded, said Judith DeNova, the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union superintendent, on Monday.
DeNova said the curriculum meeting with teachers last week was the result of work by the U46 school board and administrators to figure out how best to prepare students for new state graduation requirements for the class of 2020.
In writing and in a phone interview, DeNova stated there will be no loss of AP and honors classes at the high school.
“We are not doing away with honors and AP classes,” DeNova said. “We want to make sure that all children have access to college preparedness.”
DeNova addressed the issue late Monday after phone calls, emails and Facebook posts asserted that teachers had been told “there will be one chemistry, one physics, one biology, etc.” Some Facebook posters also reported their children were upset when teachers polled them about whether they wanted to be able to take advanced placement classes in the future.
During the curriculum meeting last week, the administration officials shared the results of recent evaluations showing that students in lower-level courses at the high school — so-called level 100 and 200 classes — did not perform as well on standardized tests as other students and were not given the same opportunities for college prep study.
School systems across the state and the country are evaluating whether the use of “leveled courses,” also known as tracking, ultimately hurts students by pigeon-holing them and overlooking their potential.
To address that issue, the supervisory union is considering “compressing” the level 100 and 200 courses and giving those students the opportunity to tackle college preparatory material.
“When we place a 14-year-old in a level 100 class, we are restricting their options going forward,” DeNova said. Students who take only 100 level classes are closed off from some higher-level courses because they cannot take the prerequisites to get in.
She said the proposed changes would “move everybody up” and not penalize students taking higher-level courses.
She said any changes in 100 and 200 level classes would come next year in “maybe two or three” ninth- and tenth-grade classes.
Teachers’ union wants a say
While DeNova maintained that there would be plenty of opportunities for teacher and parent input on the changes, the co-president of the local teachers’ union this week remained skeptical about the proposed changes and concerned about the administration’s decision-making process.
Local teachers’ union co-president Jennifer Letourneau said that Essex High School Principal Rob Reardon and Chittenden Central Supervisory Union Director of Curriculum Amy Cole told teacher department heads last week about the change to more heterogenous classes.
She said they were told that while advanced placement classes would be retained for higher-achieving students, the mid-level classes and lower-level classes will be combined next year so that a mix of students with different abilities are taught together.
The change will take effect for freshmen and sophomores next year, and the following year, all grade levels at the high school will be “de-leveled,” according to Letourneau. The change will affect all content areas except math, she said the teachers were told.
Letourneau said she has never taught in a heterogenous environment in 22 years as an English teacher, and that EHS teachers were surprised and concerned about the decision.
“Faculty input was not sought,” she said. “This is a considerable shift … there would need to be a tremendous amount of professional development to ensure it’s done in a way that allows us to teach all levels.
“We are concerned there’s not enough time to have adequate professional development.”
One concern with heterogenous classes is that more advanced students won’t get challenged enough and less advanced students will get overwhelmed, Letourneau said.
DeNova maintains that the school district is at the very beginning of considering changes in the curriculum, and no changes will be made without parent and teacher input, including public forums that will be scheduled in the coming months.
The U46 school board, which governs the high school, will discuss the proposed changes Dec. 14 , she said.
The curriculum changes are part of a three- to five-year plan that will address a number of new requirements, including personalized learning plans and new report cards.
DeNova said the proposed changes are part of an effort to move away from a “sift and sort” organizational structure that does not benefit all students and learning styles.
“When we say we give equal opportunity to all kids, do we mean it?” DeNova asked.