By Jess Wisloski
For The Essex Reporter
Nearly 70 parents and students packed the Essex High School library on Monday night, many of them prepared to face off with members of the U46 school board about plans to eliminate advanced placement and honors classes.
Most of the attendees came out to protest the school’s plan — which was made public only after the leak of an internal memo from a meeting of school leaders last month.
U46 board member and meeting facilitator Liz Subin denied at the start of the meeting that the district was planning to fold the higher-level classes into combined classes, and Chittenden Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Judith DeNova has said and written several times that no plan to remove or consolidate any high school honors or AP classes was on the horizon.
In a November letter to the district in response to rumors about the planned consolidation of honors classes, she wrote, “The team shared their vision to move away from leveled courses over a two-year period. This did not include removal of Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) courses… .”
However, when that controversial internal memo was shared publicly toward the end of Monday’s meeting, it seemed to contradict DeNova’s earlier denials.
“We will explore ways to integrate Honors into existing courses rather than our current standalone Honors courses,” the memo reads.
Board member Brian Donohue described notes about the meeting as “internal minutes that were made public through a series of distributions and emails” when he presented them on the projector, and added that the memo was also legally public information. He also framed them as simply part of the beginning of a discussion that should be greeted by curiosity on the community’s part, not by closed minds.
“I’m curious that we’ve had almost a 30 percent increase in our free and reduced lunch population,” he said. “I’m curious what it means to have so many refugees move into our community, like we hadn’t seen before. And I’m most curious if we’re structuring a school for our future and our future learners, that fits them — not that fits us right now. Or our past experiences,” he said.
EHS Principal Rob Reardon said the school was in the planning stages and not ready to implement any change to the current curriculum. He noted that the state’s requirements in proficiency-based learning mandate that by 2020 every student who graduates be both college and career-ready, and said that only three subject areas were still leveled at the high school: English, science and math.
Currently, student performance is far off the proficiency standards. Of the 2016 class, he said, testing showed only 62 percent of students were proficient in English, 26 percent proficient in science and 14 percent proficient in math.
“We are talking 9 to 12 tonight, but this is a K-to-12 conversation in general,” he said.
Several parents and students — including an Essex graduate from 1996 who now has children in the school system — spoke about how the rigor of the existing leveled system had served them or their children well in preparation for college.
But other parents spoke to the educational value of having a mixed, unleveled or heterogenous class arrangement.
Raj Chawla, who lives in the village, said he didn’t feel diversity was being valued in what he heard from parents. “We don’t want our kids to be challenged by anything but the schoolwork,” he said.
“As someone working with medical students, I see students who are 4.0 and cannot handle that at all,” he said. “They don’t know how to deal with anybody who’s not just like them.”
Learning with other styles of learners, he said, is itself an education. “They need to know how to get the attention of a teacher, how to help another student and how to be a community member,” he said.
Another parent, who said her son was in a 100-level class, said she was now worried that he wasn’t being adequately prepared for graduation, especially after he asked her about the special-needs students who are his classmates. She said a mixed grouping would be more likely to lift all of them.
Still, Kaley Barcomb, a village resident who has a daughter in middle school, said that her experience with Albert D. Lawton Middle School’s move to differentiated learning — a word sometimes used alongside unleveling — had soured her on the idea of any further restructuring.
“Thank God the information that got out, got out. I don’t have a lot of faith it wouldn’t have just been implemented,” she said.
Chemistry teacher Joel Lagrow echoed Barcomb’s complaints about the move to consolidate classes being kept secret from parents, and added that it was also being hidden from most teachers.
“Teachers were never consulted here, at all,” he said. “Not at all. We have been totally excluded from the decision-making here. And this was presented as a decision,” said Lagrow.
Parent Matt Demming also said he was glad the memo was shared at the meeting. “I’m glad that came out,” he said. In the same breath, he added that the memo seemed to be well thought out.
“It doesn’t feel like a beginning of a discussion, and it doesn’t look like the beginning of a discussion,” Demming said, adding that it reminded him of the way that two new grading systems at ADL had been rolled out.
“How can I be assured that there will be transparency going forward?” he asked.
The board members did not answer. Instead, Donohue added the comment into a spreadsheet of notes that the board planned to look into and answer at a later date.
The entire Dec. 14 meeting’s broadcast will be on RETN.org for viewing.