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Wilson to remove on-level freshman biology and English next year

Principal Kimberly Martin announced on February 6 at a staff meeting that freshman biology and English courses in the upcoming 2017-2018 school year will only be Honors courses, removing the option for freshman students to take on-level versions of the classes. According to Martin, the change in course offerings for freshman will help to close the achievement gap, the broad disparity in academic achievement between white and minority students at Wilson. Martin has made closing the achievement gap a priority for herself and her administration.

The plan was decided by the Instructional Leadership Team (ILT), a group composed of department chairs, instructional coaches, and administrators at Wilson. Martin said the group closely examined student data from a wide variety of sources, including graduation rates, GPAs, and AP enrollment and achievement. Their ultimate conclusion, Martin said, was that an achievement gap is present before the school’s freshmen even arrive at Wilson. She believes changing the freshman course offerings will change that. Martin said the ILT vote in favor of the plan, called “Honors for All,” was unanimous.

Martin said the classes will continue to be officially designated as Honors courses and that the curriculum for the courses will be considered, “modified, adopted, Honors curriculum, but [still] Honors curriculum.”

Repeatedly throughout the staff meeting, Martin acknowledged that the program might cause backlash from the broader community, and that teachers may be uncomfortable with the idea. Martin said the process of deciding to remove on-level freshman English and biology courses was difficult. The ILT considered the idea earlier in the school year, decided against it, and more recently came back to it. Martin said even though the final vote by ILT members in favor of “Honors for all” was unanimous, many of them may still have misgivings or reservations about it.

Honors courses are supposed to have a more rigorous curriculum than their on-level counterparts. This can mean extra homework, more difficult tests, or a faster course that gives room for additional topics. For example, Honors biology courses have in past years included a homework assignment that involved regular reading, and interpreting peer-reviewed scientific journals that on-level biology courses did not include. Due to their increased rigor, an A in an Honors course is given a G.P.A. of 4.5, while an A in an on-level course is given a G.P.A of 4.

Currently, and in past years, freshmen at Wilson had the option of on-level or Honors English and biology classes, two required courses for freshman. Another required course, World History, is only offered as an on-level course.

Martin acknowledged that an alternative to the current plan would be offering only on-level freshman English 1 and biology. However, Martin said that she leaned against this option, as she believed the community backlash would be strong if freshmen were unable to take as many Honors classes.

Some freshmen sign up for their classes when they are in eighth grade with the help of their middle school administrators. At the staff meeting, Martin was asked by a Wilson teacher if feeder middle schools for Wilson would be included in the process of changing freshman class offerings. Martin said eventually they will be, but not at the start of the program. “I’d love to branch into middle school but I can control what I can control,” Martin said. “I’m fixing what’s wrong before [the students] get here, or I’m trying to.”

Martin said the plan will take a lot of time and effort to implement, and said teachers’ professional development time for the remainder of the year will be dedicated to working on “Honors for All.” According to her, the PTSO has allocated $5,000 for any additional overtime hours teachers choose to spend working on it. Teachers have also been given time in which they discuss the change in curriculum amongst themselves.

Despite the potential backlash and difficulties Martin sees with “Honors for All,” she believes it is an important step in her end goal of closing the achievement gap at Wilson. “Doing something is better than doing nothing,” Martin said. •