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Don't eliminate honors classes for ninth-graders

By Laura Caffry

As some of you may have heard, as I heard from my daughter who is a junior at Harwood Union, this past week, apparently the HU administration is proposing/considering the elimination of honors-level classes for freshmen (Class of 2018 – current eighth-graders). We have heard that this elimination may include 10th-grade honors level classes as well.

Without the challenge of the honors-level courses that my daughter has been able to take (one each in 7th and 8th, three in 9th and four in 10th) there is no way that she would have been prepared for the rigor of her AP chemistry class and the four honors-level classes that she is taking as a junior. Not to mention that her transcript would not look too good to the colleges to which she will be applying.

I could go on for hours about why this concerns me and I realize that each of you may or may not agree with some or all of my points, but I would like as many people as possible to be aware of the potential loss of opportunity for Harwood's more motivated and/or more capable students and brevity has never been my strong suit.

My son who is in eighth grade loves three (out of his four) core teachers and finds their classes interesting, but the only class that he actually finds really challenging is the algebra seminar. If HU eliminates honors-level classes for freshmen and maybe sophomores (as the HUHS kids have heard and the principals did not deny when I asked them), will he not be challenged again until his junior year? As the saying goes, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

I began asking the principals about this on Thursday evening. Co-principal Amy Rex and I traded messages back and forth. The email below, received this evening from Amy and Lisa is all I have learned about what is happening.

"In my correspondence to you Friday evening, I stated that Lisa and I were preparing additional information for parents who had made inquiries and that we would send it along sometime today. At that time, I also stated that this information, although it may provide a little more insight, would not fully detail the ninth-grade model. Please know that it is essential that we adhere to our practice of first providing information related to programmatic changes to the school board and then take the time to work with them around next steps; their insight as representatives of the community is critical to what we do and how we move forward. It is unfortunate that both incorrect information and information out of context was shared in the community; it creates unrest and hostility. I apologize for the frustration that this is causing you and perhaps many others. Below is the response we prepared for parents who chose to make direct inquiries; a choice we wholeheartedly appreciate.

"Foremost, thank you taking the time to make a direct inquiry with the administration; it is truly the best source of information when trying to dispel rumors related to decision-making at Harwood.

"Please know that it is the intent of the administration to make decisions that serve in the best interest of all students. Our decisions are informed by evidence at the school level, best practices in the field of education and their implementation locally and nationally and via educational research.

"Also know that currently all programmatic decisions are related to our multi-year redesign plan; a plan that reflects Vermont's Quality Education Framework (http://www.vtvsa.org/). This redesign, in part, includes a rigorous curricula for all students, increased personalization, proficiency-based graduation and the integration of technology to enhance learning.

"The redesign plan necessitates the review of a range of school-wide practices and policies including: the school schedule; tracking; graduation requirements; and weighted grading. Changes will only be made if doing so will result in advancing our redesign goals. At this time, some revisions may be made to our ninth-grade model and a selection of honors courses; however, honors and advanced placement courses will not be eliminated school-wide.

"More detailed information regarding changes related to tracking and/or other programmatic changes will be shared community-wide later this week after we consult with the school board. Thank you again for your inquiry; we appreciate your thoughtful approach and patience in this matter, and please let us know if we can be of further assistance.

"Sincerely, Amy Rex and Lisa Atwood"

Change can be tough, but a lot of good changes have been made. For instance, I believe that many people agree with me in thinking that the eighth-grade algebra seminar is a far better experience than having eighth-graders take algebra with the eighth-grade math teacher at HU was. Many people agree that the iPads are fabulous and that the effort that some of the staff has put into that initiative is both infectious and impressive. The changes for working with every individual student that Sarah Ibson and her colleagues are bringing about are cutting edge and will bring value to every student.

However, the HU motto is to "provide an educational and creative environment in which every person is valued as an individual, challenged as a learner and inspired to contribute to a democratic society." If my son has to sit through all his freshman classes with an experience like the nonhonors geometry class was for so many of our children during their freshman year, I don't see how that will value my son as an individual or challenge him as a learner. I can readily see how the increased personalization and integration of technology will bring all students closer to that goal – but removing the challenge for many students seems entirely contrary to that goal. Also, given that the students and parents weren't even invited to the table, how does that teach the students how to participate in a democratic society?

I mean no disrespect to the students who are not able to take or are not interested in taking all or some of school's more rigorous offerings. Part of the HU experience that is valuable is the diversity of learners. However, if this goes through, I expect that diversity, along with the total numbers of students enrolled, will decline. My son and I expect many others will likely leave HU for either a more rigorous private school or (by luck in the school choice lottery or by relocating) another public school that continues to offer a more rigorous experience for those who are interested. UVM has added an honors college to try to attract Vermont's top students to study at an in-state public university. Why would HU be pushing their top students out?

HU graduates are currently attending MIT, Yale, Middlebury, Smith and other top-tier colleges and universities. If we stop offering top-tier courses, only offer rigorous courses for two out of the six years at HU, how will HU prepare our students to be accepted at and successful in these schools.

I am interested in having parents and the potentially affected students invited to the table for discussion. I believe it is our best opportunity to learn what is in the works, to be heard, to participate in a civil and democratic process, to show our kids that we value their educations.

Laura A. Caffry
Waitsfield

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