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Non Meeting Yields a Lot of Information

Large turnout discusses future of Honors program at West Potomac.

It wasn’t until almost an hour into the meeting that Steve Rezendes, West Potomac Science teacher, realized that they weren’t eliminating any of the Science or Chemistry Honors courses. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard that the only courses scheduled to be phased out are Junior English II and Sophomore World History II—and that isn’t going to happen until the following school year.

“I was told at a party that all honors programs were going to be phased out,” Rezendes said. “It seems I was misinformed. It was kind of funny in a way. At the start of the meeting, it was like the scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye thinks the Butcher wants to butcher his cow and the butcher really wants to marry his daughter. We really didn't understand each other for awhile. I will blame that part on the PTA.

“Having said that, Ms. Vesilind has made it her highest priority that WP become one school and not remain two. While I personally feel that we need to motivate the student end more, I will try some of the new techniques she suggests.”

All of this discussion was held at West Potomac’s library last Tuesday. Technically, it wasn’t even supposed to be a meeting. The representative from FCPS Instructional Services Department who was supposed to talk about the proposition cancelled due to a scheduling conflict; however, Diane Brody, WPPTSA President, sent out an email saying that she and Rima Vesilind, principal, West Potomac High School, would be at the school for questions. About 25 parents and one student attended; more than most PTSA meetings. It was clear that there was some concern.

Jim Fishel, parent of Parker and Gwen Fishel, is one of those concerned parents, and said, “What worries me most about the plan is that my daughter is coming in [next year] and if everybody has to take all AP courses, they may have to teach down.”

WHEN ALL WAS SAID AND DONE, Vesilind made it clear that only two courses were being considered for elimination. More important than that is the fact that they are implementing a new way of teaching, a sort of progressive teaching where teachers "teach up."

This is being done to keep West Potomac from becoming "two schools" and will help eliminate the need for three levels of courses — General Education, Honors and Advance Placement (AP). If all goes well, the two Honors courses that occur simultaneously with AP courses, Junior English II and Sophomore World History II will be eliminated in the 2006-07 school year. They will be the only honors course eliminated.

Vesilind believes that this new way of teaching—which is already being implemented in progressive schools across the country — will raise the rigor of General Education classes.

“With principal after principal, you haven’t had a chance to make changes,” Vesilind said. “I’m going to be here [for at least the next five years] and changes need to be made. The reason I became an elementary school principal is that there were too many divisions — we can’t keep teaching that way. The school I came from was significantly different — they met every child’s needs.”

She went on to explain that the focus will be on teaching, not learning, and that individual students’ needs will be identified.

When Sam Stevens, rising West Potomac senior, heard that, he asked “The vision of identifying students is interesting, but do you honestly expect it to be integrated over a year?”

VESILIND FEELS THAT THIS APPROACH will also help with discipline, and said, “If a child is not engaged and doesn’t know what they’re doing here, there are going to be discipline problems." She gave a couple of examples of students who had been overlooked; one a very popular Junior who avoided oral reading because he was only reading at a third-grade level.

One gentleman asked where this type of differentiated teaching is being done, and Vesilind said that they are doing it at Marshall High School. They are also doing it at Stuart High School, and Vesilind added, “They are more diversified and their scores were way down, but they changed their way of teaching and have been very successful.”

Vesilind continued by saying that when she went to school, teaching was done to kids. They read a book, answered questions at the end of the chapter, and completed worksheets.

“That’s not the way teaching is going to work for this generation,” she said.

One woman then asked how teachers will learn, and Vesilind said that they will participate in workshops that highlight Dan Mulligan’s specialized pragmatic strategies. Some of the teachers who have tried these strategies in the summer school program have already found them to be effective.

Halfway through the meeting, Brody weighed in with her thoughts, saying, “This is a philosophical discussion more than anything else. I agree with differentiated learning; it is the way of the future but has not caught on here. The thing that concerns me is reality — I see what it’s done to my daughter to be a student in a General Education class. The thing we hear over and over again is what about the middle kids?”

Vesilind continued to defend her position and talked about the institute for rising freshmen. This is an intensive prep course for a group of smart minority students who otherwise would be overlooked.

“They feel they’re not prepared, and we want to make sure that they get the background and confidence they need,” Vesilind said.

BARBARA MICALE, mother of Parker and Gwen Fishel, asked about the Standards of Learning test, and Vesilind said, “There is still a curriculum and the SOL test contains the base core of knowledge. AP courses will teach much more. The bottom line is that these kids need to be challenged.”

There was a lot of discussion about what colleges look for and Vesilind felt pretty strongly that if a school offers both Honors and AP, then they look for the students who take the AP courses. She also alluded to the fact that it may be better to get a “C” in an AP course than an “A” in a General Education course.

After the meeting, Micale, said, “I still have some problems with the assumption that all high school students are capable of doing AP work and not quite sure that getting a ‘C’ in an AP course and not passing the exam is really what kids should be doing in order to avoid general education classes which won’t look good on college applications. If everyone is supposed to take college level courses in high school, then maybe we need to evaluate our entire school system. Maybe there should only be three years of high school and then they should go on to college.”

After the discussion about the Honors program wound down, Vesilind opened the meeting up for questions and addressed issues like class size; status of teacher replacements; and development in the guidance department.

The official meeting with the representative from the FCPS Instructional Services Department will be held in mid August.