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By Doug and Susan Graham
We are writing this as community members, not as Harwood parents. We had two children attend Harwood: One is a junior in college and another is about to graduate. Throughout their middle and high school years, our family has experienced AP, honors and non-honors classes, numerous sports seasons, a variety of extracurricular activities and extensive college searches.
Our involvement in the recent Harwood debate of the potential elimination of honors classes in ninth grade has nothing to do with my individual children and their "race to the top," and we personally take offense to being termed "elitist" just because we support some form of accelerated classroom groupings as the best way to meet the needs of those students who are capable of achieving a high level of academic success both at Harwood and beyond.
We recently had a productive meeting with co-principal Amy Rex in which we shared our experiences as Harwood parents and Amy openly shared information on the background and current status of the redesign. We are satisfied that the additional year of community/teacher/student forums, information gathering and, most importantly, additional teacher training will lead to a more effective ninth-grade redesign. We are also planning to attend the community forums to listen to the ideas of others and add input as appropriate. Amy assured us that heterogeneous groupings (classrooms with students of all academic abilities) in ninth grade are not a foregone conclusion and that Harwood has no intention of eliminating honors and AP offerings in 10th, 11th and 12th grades.
Our concern about the ninth-grade redesign stems from disappointment with the Harwood Middle School academics versus satisfaction with the high school academics, and we are apprehensive about a redesign that could extend the mediocre academics of middle school into the first year of high school. In middle school (seventh and eighth grade), four elementary schools come together, academic backgrounds are not always comparable, and there's a prevalent school of thought that with all the social stress that comes with being 12 to 14 years old, the academic workload should not be strenuous. Our children had very little academic challenge during those two years, other than "advanced math" (a "tracked" math grouping) in which they completed both seventh and eighth grade math in a single year and algebra in eighth grade.
Other than math, there was no differentiation in teaching within the classrooms. All students learned the same grammar and spelling words, read the same books and did the same homework assignments. A book that could have been read in two nights by many of the students instead took weeks, so that the slower readers were not left behind. No one was asked to work ahead or do more. Our children were both solid students, but many of their classmates exceeded them academically, as evidenced by their peers who are or will be attending some of the nation's most selective colleges. I can assure you, our kids were not the only ones who were bored.
Four years after our daughter left middle school, we still consistently hear about seventh- and eighth-graders being bullied for being smart or being pressured by their less-motivated peers to do the majority of the work in an important group project. Equally concerning is that we're still hearing from students that they're bored and getting straight As without much effort.
Administrators agree that this is unacceptable, but it doesn't appear to have changed much if at all. If Harwood had shown us that differentiated education could effectively take place within the seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms, we'd be much more inclined to accept the concept of mixed ability groupings in a newly designed ninth grade.
Honors classes in ninth grade saved my children and others from yet another year of academic boredom. The exception was the core class of geometry. With no honors math option in ninth grade, geometry was taught to the level of the average student and not at all challenging to students who excel in math. Even the high schools cited by administrators as role models for heterogeneous ninth-grade classes actually offer accelerated geometry classes to qualified freshmen, while Harwood does not.
The teachers at Waitsfield Elementary did an exemplary job differentiating the education within the classroom. Students worked individually on language and grammar, math and spelling. They read books that were appropriate for their own reading level. This is reasonable for a teacher to accomplish in a classroom of 12 to 15 students whom the teacher has all day long, sometimes for consecutive years. However, it's not easily achieved when the teacher sees a student for only 45 minutes a day and has many more students whose individual needs and academic abilities must be identified and appropriately challenged.
This is not about the "haves" and the "have nots." This is about providing an appropriate level of academic rigor for all learning abilities. Much as we'd like to think that in our democratic society everyone is on an equal playing field, we're not. Some are better athletes, some are better musicians and, yes, some are better academically than others. At Harwood, we've seen students from affluent backgrounds struggle in a classroom and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds thrive in honors classes and go on to attend prestigious colleges.
NOT ONE SIZE FITS ALL
Education is also not "one size fits all," and there may be equally effective ways to bridge a socioeconomic gap among students than to put a wide variety of learning abilities together in a classroom where the teacher cannot adequately address the needs of all. As Amy Rex stated in The Valley Reporter last week, "There is research that shows that if students aren't having an engaging, challenging (and) supportive experience in the ninth grade, it changes their trajectory." In a redesign, we need to consider this relative to all students, including the very brightest, whose trajectory can be negatively affected if ninth-grade academic rigor turns into an extension of middle school.
Throughout the redesign process, let's talk to ninth-grade teachers at schools with redesigned ninth-grade structures about their experiences and training and what works and what doesn't. Let's also hear directly from a broad spectrum of former ninth-grade students at these schools as to whether or not they were challenged as learners. And, throughout the process, let's keep an open mind, put stereotypes aside, and focus on creating a ninth grade that best meets the educational needs of all students, including the academically talented.
Doug and Susan Graham live in Waitsfield.