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Parents Question End of Honors

Two-hour West Potomac meeting yields much frustration, little promise of change.

Less than a month after a couple of dozen parents met to discuss the future of Honors classes at West Potomac High School (WPHS), most of those same parents, plus a couple dozen more, gathered again in West Potomac’s library.

This time, four Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) curriculum specialists — Jennifer Beach, Bernie Glaze, Russ Phipps and Janice Leslie — were in attendance, as was Timothy Boyd, the new director of student services. However, while Janice Leslie, high school curriculum specialist, fielded some of the questions, it was Rima Vesilind, WPHS principal, who once again fielded most of the questions.

Many of the questions were the same ones asked last month, and to the frustration of parents, many of the answers remained the same. Vesilind once again reiterated that the philosophy of honors classes was created to have more rigor than the general education classes and to prepare for the next course. She said that English II and Sophomore World History II duplicate what is taught in the AP courses and were never intended to be there. They are scheduled to be eliminated in the 2006-07 school year, taking away what parents perceive to be the “middle level.” Vesilind said that what she would like to see instead is the addition of two team-taught courses — World Civilization and American Civilization.

Diane Grice, mother of a rising ninth grader, promptly asked about the math and science courses; Vesilind said that those honors courses were not affected because they were not in direct competition with the AP courses. Grice said that information is important, adding, “You have to consider the workload kids will have and can’t do it in a vacuum. If I have a child highly skilled on one area but not another, I might not want them in all AP classes, but want to have the option of an Honors class.”

Parents repeatedly pointed out that they felt it was important to have the option of having Honors level course so that students didn’t have to be loaded down with too many AP courses.

“This is really nothing new,” Leslie said. “We were told five years ago that we needed to start working students into AP courses. All of the Fairfax County schools are migrating toward this.”

PRIOR TO THE MEETING, Diane Brody, WPPTSA president, had sent out an email to all parents, stating, “The Aug. 16 meeting is an important one for the future of WP Honors classes. The FCPS plan is to eliminate honors classes for 11th and 12th grade students when an AP course is offered in that subject. The goal is to encourage all students to take the most rigorous course available ... something that colleges like to see on transcripts. This is an admirable goal, but based on discussions at PTSA meetings in the spring, not all parents agree that this is the best course of action for their children, and other students at WP. The principal and PTSA have arranged this meeting with FCPS Instructional Services Department employees to discuss our concerns.

“I know that many parents and WP staff may be relieved to hear that only two courses are planned to be dropped beginning in 2006-2007 school year ... nothing will change until then. Some even blame the PTSA for misleading parents. I would like the opportunity to respond.

“The PTSA took on this initiative in response to our members’ concerns. We discussed this at several PTSA meetings last spring, and it was obvious that there was enough support to go to the source (FCPS administration) for answers to questions. At that point we had many more questions than answers, and no one seemed sure what exactly was about to happen. The meeting was set up for July 19 at WP. The FCPS ISD staff had a conflict come up, and asked to reschedule the meeting in mid-August. That allowed this issue to fester without getting questions answered, and certainly is not the way I would have preferred this to go.

“Let’s take a minute to step back and look at the big picture. This is a change that will be implemented over time ... in fact, it probably has already begun ... ever wonder what happened to Honors English 12 Honors, History 11 and 12 Honors? Are more course eliminations planned? Choices are being eliminated that are good choices for many students.

“AP courses are college level courses, and yes, students who strive to go to college would benefit from a taste of college rigor. Everyone agrees that we want to offer courses that challenge our students … and encourage them to accept those challenges. But this is high school, and some believe that there are few students that can handle 4 or 5 AP courses and still maintain a balance of other high school activities (that colleges also like to see), home responsibilities, and work schedules. This raises a basic question ... is this lifestyle healthy for a teenager? Let's find out ... join us on August 16 ... it promises to be an informative and thought provoking discussion.”

Brody was correct in her assessment that it would be an informative and thought-provoking discussion. Throughout the evening, it was a battle of semantics with parents insisting that honors courses were being “taken away” and Fairfax County saying that they were “migrating” towards a new system.

When Grice insisted that an option was being removed, Leslie said, “I don’t think it’s being removed. It’s a migration and it’s counterproductive to run dual courses.”

VESILIND CONTINUED to reiterate that when the regular classes develop greater rigor that there will be no need for another level, but parents were not convinced and continued to insist that the general education classes are too disruptive and will not be fixed anytime soon.

“It’s great to think that students can be taught at the same level,” said Jim Fishel. "It's a wonderful dream, but it's 'pie in the sky.' I've talked to teachers in the elementary and middle schools and it's not going to happen. There is simply not enough time to teach 22 kids at 22 different levels in the allotted amount of time each day."

At one point, Fishel asked Vesilind how long she expected this change to take place and asked what happens in the meantime.

Vesilind said that she hopes that the teaching in general education classes will be more rigorous by next year, but conceded by saying, “We will keep honors classes [next year] if we are not ready,” Vesilind said.

When one parent said that she was concerned about her child being in classes that are disruptive, Vesilind said, “All good teachers meet children where they are.”

Vesilind also said that she has no problem removing students who are not there to learn, and said that about a dozen children were removed this year.

YET, WHILE NUMBERS of students taking AP courses in other schools are going up, West Potomac’s enrollment in AP classes had declined.

One woman said that part of the problem was the excessive summer assignments given for AP and the overbearing teaching of the courses. She suggested that maybe students aren’t signing up for AP because they are concerned about the workload, and said, “Most parents don’t want their kids to burn out.”

Both Leslie and Vesilind said that they would review the summer assignments and later in the meeting, Vesilind went so far as to say that if a student could not fulfill all of the requirements, that they should “do the best they can.”

Another problem may be the inconsistency in teachers. The sole student who attended the meeting said, “If there is a general migration toward AP, shouldn’t we see students getting all A’s in the Honors course?” She also said that she saw a discrepancy in the workload given by different instructors teaching the same AP course.

Laurie Cushman said that the teacher made all the difference in her children’s education and some teachers are just not up to the task of teaching on all these levels.

Dave Goldfarb, social studies teacher and AP coordinator, said he supported the change saying that unlike AP, which has external standards, that there are no standards for Honors courses.

“We have to do the best we can,” Goldfarb said. “I don’t really see where 2, 4 or 6 levels would do any better. I just don’t see why having an AP course is a step backward.”

Brody asked if the school has a choice about eliminating the Honors classes, and Vesilind said that they would continue to discuss it.

When Dan Storck, one of three Fairfax County School Board representatives present, was asked to comment, he said, “We don’t mandate curriculum; we mandate goals. The move is towards AP.”

THROUGHOUT THE MEETING, Vesilind, Boyd and Fairfax County representatives kept repeating that colleges want to see students take the most challenging courses available. If both Honors and AP are offered in a specific subject, they want to see the student take the AP course.

Leslie works with college admissions and said, “If an AP course is available and the student takes an Honors course, it gives them a false sense of security.”

This prompted Connie Gerow to say, “I am very upset. All I’m hearing about is preparing for college — what about getting the best education right now?”

Trish Fineran said that she would like to see how students are doing in the AP classes, and Leslie gave the example that the Fairfax County pass rate for AP World History was 74 percent and WP exceeded that with an 84 percent pass rate.

Before the meeting ended, all three specialists advocated for the change. Beach, a former Honors English 11 teacher, said, “I was nervous when they took the course away but now AP is a way of life. It used to be that AP classes were only for the top students, but now they are challenging classes not with more work, but deeper, and with more depth not breadth.”

Phipps said, “I have seen the success that this has had in other Fairfax County schools and encourage you to accept this.”

Glaze said, “I talk to parents all the time and I know what a heart-wrenching decision this is for the whole family. But I’ve talked to UVA and they want students to have at least five or six AP courses.”

At the end of the meeting, a request was made to follow up this meeting with a task force. Brody said that she and Stan Blacker, chair of the education committee, would coordinate a task force and continue the dialogue about this subject at the September PTSA meeting.