Freshman English Honors Option Available Second Semester; Decision Remains Controversial


Jessica Palmer

Honors option now available in Freshman English classes. Classes are no longer separate.

By Alicia Malek, Academics Editor

This year, Freshman English changed to a stacked class with embedded honors, removing stand-alone honors and regular English classes. This decision, made last May, responded to the varied levels of racial diversity in tracked English classes along with the vision to increase student access to honors-leveled classes. While the board generally supported this and passed the proposal, the decision remains controversial.

According to Niles West English Director Michael Kucera, the plan provides “equitable access to rigorous coursework,” involving more students in higher level learning.

“Black and Latinx students are underrepresented in honors level coursework,” Kucera said. “If we separate our students by ability at the freshman level, that means it’s their prior academic history that’s determining their future here at Niles West from day one. Every time we break our students off into different factions, it means that we lose out on the potential to really enjoy the full diversity of our student body in all of our classes.”

Beginning this year, there are only two options for Freshman English: F19 and Freshman English. The Freshman English course combines what would have been regular and honors classes, while F19 is a double period class that offers the standard English curriculum while also assisting students who need extra support in reading. An embedded honors option for Freshman English will become available in the second semester for all students who wish to opt in.

Eighth graders who registered for classes in February, months before the board voted on the proposal, voiced their uncertainty about the new curriculum change.

“I was recommended to be in Honors English, and then we were told that for the first semester, we couldn’t be in Honors English. At first, I was a little bit confused and curious why it was like that,” freshman Christian Guzman said.

Guzman was not the only one confused. Community members were also concerned, creating a petition that explained issues with the change. In the petition’s comments, Emily McCall expressed the lack of the community’s voice in the decision.

“This hasty decision is not well- thought out nor substantiated with empirical evidence or data per the proposal presented on 4/27, nor has it been communicated to incoming freshmen who have already registered for their classes for the 2021/2022 school year,” McCall wrote. “The lack of transparency regarding our children’s education is horrendous and needs to be addressed before a change can be made to the curriculum.”

A community member also commented on the importance of meeting students at their academic level.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with having different levels of learning. It allows students to learn at their own pace or to push themselves to reach higher goals,” Geri Robinson said. “How about instead of keeping all students at the same level, you work on a better way to get each of them to the next level and help them be all they can be. Seems like we need to move forward, not backwards.”

English teacher Dillin Randolph, who graduated from Evanston Township High School, supports the new model for Freshman English and believes the decision is a step forward. In fact, he believes the model should be implemented in sophomore and junior years as well. Senior English courses, with the exception of AP Literature, have offered embedded honors for years.

“I’ve taught honors classes, and the truth is, every time I taught an honors class, it was all white and Asian kids. Regular, it was all black and Hispanic kids and everyone else,” Randolph said. “When I was a student, and I was a black kid in honors classes, I was often the only [one]. So at a certain point, we have to [ask, is] this racist?” 

Another concern among critics was that not all students would receive the support at their individual levels of achievement. According to Kucera, English classes have always served a variety of reading and interest levels.

“Good teaching means differentiating to meet the needs of the students in all of your classes,” Kucera said.

According to Randolph and English teacher Kristen Jackson, the content has not changed, but access to the content has increased.

“I’m offering and doing the same assignments that I have done in previous years with my honors students,” Jackson said. “We want to challenge students at all levels.” 

“If I had a certain standard for a sophomore student, which is the honors level, why would I deprive my students of the regular level of meeting those standards as well?” Randolph said. “I teach the class with honors content but just slow down the pace so everyone is able to understand it.”

Randolph also commented on what the honors curriculum will look like in his embedded classroom, indicating that honors involves trying challenging work and committing to improvement. 

“If [students] want to be designated as honors, there are not necessarily certain assignments they have to do, it’s not like they do extra work; it’s showing me that they are willing to improve,” Randolph said.  “If I assign a project, and say, ‘Hey, here’s a more challenging part of the project, try this out,’ they try that out. You can do more work and not really reflect on it or try to get better, that’s not an honors student.”

Freshman Grace Cherian plans to take advantage of the embedded honors option next semester.

“If you know what this already is, it’s gonna be really easy. I think the honors class would be better for me. I’m not learning anything in this class, but it is still helping others,” Cherian said.

Although Cherian understands the purpose of the decision, she doesn’t fully agree with it.

“I feel like some people need the more accelerat[ed] class so that they are actually stimulated in class, but I understand why they did it. I get that everyone needs the same opportunities,” Cherian said.

 In spite of the fact that access to honors-level work is offered in the classroom, the perception that this class is less rigorous than a stand-alone honors class persists among some students. 

“I just feel it’s kind of unfair to the people who actually are excelling in the easier class,” Guzman said.

Although Guzman gathers this model to be less challenging than a stand-alone honors class, Kucera believes limiting access to honors is unfair.

“I don’t see a way [an embedded Freshman English class] can be detrimental to [students who would have chosen honors]. But who I do think about are the students who are left out of those classes,” Kucera said. “When you bring more perspectives to the table and more voices into the discussion, it only gets enhanced.”

According to freshman Ayesha Muhammad, the embedded honors class has been a helpful review after learning remotely last year.

“I think it is better because when we were on Zoom, I forgot everything, and I wasn’t really paying attention in class. I was going to do honors, but then they made everyone do regular, and I think that was a lot better. We relearned a lot of things,” Muhammad said.

Students feel comfortable at different levels and may have rigorous schedules, so they choose what fits their interests. Freshman Ajax Hinklin, for example, finds English teacher Michael Graham’s class appropriately challenging. 

“I think it’s pretty decently challenging; [Mr. Graham] does occasionally offer challenging things to do, but I’m not really that interested in honors,” Hinklin said.

While Hinklin is satisfied with the rigor during first semester, another one of Mr. Graham’s students, Amelia Gottschalk, intends to opt into honors for the second semester for a more difficult class with a higher grade weight. Regular English class offers a grade weight of 4.0 compared to Honors English’s grade weight of 4.5, which impacts a student’s overall grade point average (GPA).

“I think I’m being challenged decently, but I would definitely move up to honors given the opportunity because I just like more challenging classes and the GPA. I don’t think it was the greatest decision to not have Honors English for freshmen because I would have rather started out with it, but I do understand why they did it after COVID,” Gottschalk said.

Teacher recommendation and test performance are no longer major factors in determining course level; the decision is primarily up to the student. All students will have the chance to opt in.

“It will be interesting next semester to see what happens in terms of how many students select honors because sometimes even students that would technically be placed in an honors class aren’t necessarily the best students. By that I mean that perhaps they turn in work late or perhaps they’re not as motivated even though they’re very smart in terms of their reading level. They might choose not to be honors because it is more work,” English teacher Evelyn Lauer said.

No comments were received from teachers who disapproved of the decision or students who fully supported it.