Plan to Detrack Freshman English Passes; Effective Fall 2021

District 219 logo.

District 219 logo.

By Gloria Kosir and Celina Saba

A plan to de-track freshman English classes effective in the fall of 2021 was passed by the Board of Education (BoE) during a regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday, May 4. Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Sandra Arreguin and Niles West and North English directors Dr. Michael Kucera and Sara Klos initially presented the plan on April 27 during a BoE special meeting and returned to field questions and make clarifications on May 4. 

Tracking generally refers to ability grouping, with honors courses adopting an accelerated pace, more rigorous coursework, and awarding students with a higher grade weight: 4.5 rather than the 4.0 for a regular course. Placement in Honors English in the freshman year historically has been determined by a combination of 8th-grade teacher recommendation, test scores, and student preference. This plan will result in a course change for all incoming freshmen students starting this fall. Effective next school year, freshman English classrooms will be at the same level for the first semester. When the second semester begins, any student can opt in to receive Honors credit, along with more rigorous coursework. Students who opt-in will remain with their first semester classmates, stacking the classes with both honors and regular students in the same room.

According to Klos, the main goals are to create classes that are racially representative of the schools and to “encourage more, if not all students to opt in for honors credit.”

Observing statistics based on federal designations, the 2020-2021 D219 freshman class is comprised of 17% Hispanic/Latinx, 33% Asian, 6% Black or African American, 39% White, and 4% more than one race indicated. However, of freshmen enrolled in honors English, 11% identify as Hispanic/Latinx, and 2% identify as Black or African American. Students identifying as Asian comprise 40% of honors English, and the remaining 42% identify as White. 

According to the board presentation, this initiative aims to create educational equity through the integration of ability levels. Senior English classes are currently stacked with regular and honors students. AP Literature and Composition, a course that is not stacked, is also available for seniors.

The English department is not the only department in the district that offers stacked classes, though it is the first core academic department to adopt this model. The Fine and Applied Arts department and the Engineering Computer Science and Business department utilize a similar system as well. 

The plan also addresses an issue regarding placements. “Any student can reject or accept recommended placements. However, research supports that when people are labeled a certain way, it affects their own self-perceptions and how they label themselves,” Kucera said. “The hope is that by having everyone in one room, working and learning together, it will destigmatize honors classes and incentiv[ize] more students who had been previously placed in regular to take the course.”

According to Kucera and Klos, the topic was discussed within their departments, and department work during asynchronous Wednesdays provided them with the time to gather teacher input. Teachers from Niles North and Freshman English teacher Michael Graham, all of whom supported the proposal, were present at the May 4 board meeting. 

“Teachers worked across districts in the fall, and then in January, we really hit the ground running with bringing it to CSSI (Curriculum Development for School Improvement), which is a district-wide curriculum committee of board members, students, parents and teachers from almost every department,” Klos said. 

Niles North counselors were informed of the change on May 6. Niles West counselors were informed on May 10 during their team meeting. According to Klos and Kucera, the community will receive an electronic letter this week that will provide parents and guardians with a link to ask questions. As of May 7, the district was waiting for four translations of the letter. There has been a variety of parent reactions both for and against the proposal. On Tuesday, Jan. 12, a group of parents, students, and teachers called for de-tracking at a press conference. Other parents circulated a petition with concerns regarding this specific plan. 

Secretary Joseph Nowik was the only board member to vote against the proposal.