D-219 Soul-Searches On AP Classes, Religious Holidays, Start Date

Community input leads the district to adjust recommendations on whether to start the school year Aug. 7, kill honors classes, require 50 percent of students to take Advanced Placement courses and require all students to take a lunch period.

Students at Niles North and Niles West High Schools won’t have to change their summer plans in order to head back to school the second week of August next year.

After receiving input from students, teachers and parents at a district town hall meeting,  online and at PTA meetings in sender elementary districts, the Niles Township High School District 219 administration pushed its recommendation to push the school start back until the 2014-2015 school year, and board members suggested that it might not happen even then.

Earlier: Parents weigh in on proposed changes

The proposed calendar change was just one topic in an extended discussion of the district’s annual review of programs at the Nov. 26 school board meeting. The meeting was the first time the board has publicly discussed the recommendations, which have been posted for public comment since August. The board is scheduled to vote on the changes at its Dec. 17 meeting.

Idea of requiring lunch was dropped

Some were dispatched relatively quickly: a proposal to require students to have a scheduled lunch period got nothing but negative reviews from students and parents and was dropped.

Honors classes may survive

Opposition to dropping honors-track classes in an effort to encourage more students to take Advanced Placement classes also got a thumbs-down from most parents and students, so the district modified those plans, despite Superintendent Nanciann Gatta’s opinion that doing so was “taking a step backward, because of community input, but these are the community’s schools.”

The board seems likely to retain the goal of having at least half of District 219 students take AP classes, a huge jump from the 14 percent who do so now. AP classes are supposed to be equivalent to similar college classes, and students who do well enough on AP exams at the end of the school year can qualify for college credit.

High schools are often ranked by how many of their students take AP classes, so having a much lower percentage of AP students than surrounding school districts hurts all District 219 schools, said school board president Robert Silverman. However, the district might have to increase the percentage of students who take AP classes without eliminating honors classes, he said.

“This one’s a tough one,” he said. “We’re different than just about everyone around us. We have fewer kids taking AP than everyone around us. Every single one. There is a culture here that maybe it’s too hard, or maybe we’re not pushing kids enough, or we aren’t placing kids correctly.”

Think differently about calendar?

Silverman also urged some compromise on the school calendar, saying that maybe there is a way to accomplish the goal of moving fall semester finals to before winter break while still not starting school until the third week of August,  perhaps by having unbalanced semesters.

That idea is complicated by the number of days off that fall in the first semester, including religious holidays that the district has long observed.

Board member Eileen Valfer suggested that the district could pick up some days in the fall by eliminating days off for all religious holidays.

“What about not taking any religious holidays at all? I think you take them all or don’t take any,” she said, adding that no one knows how many students would be absent those days. “I’d have to see how many kids that would really affect.”

Silverman wasn’t sure that would get positive response from the community, especially from Jewish families whose children would be absent for two days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, roughly a week apart.

Gatta agreed to draw up an alternative calendar for the 2014-2015 school year before the Dec. 17 meeting.

Board members also spent time talking about the recommendation to create a “director of equity” position. The person who filled the position would be responsible for helping the district change factors that lead to racial and ethnic achievement gaps.

The person would also be director of the English Language Learners program and would be paid for by eliminating part-time ELL coordinators at each school, a move that drew criticism from parents and faculty.

“I hate the term ‘director of equity,’” Silverman said. “’Director of equity’ has a connotation that there has been an inequity.”

District resident Naushina Rahman, who came to speak out against eliminating the ELL coordinators, said she was “appalled” that board members did not see the inequities that confront minority students, even in a district where there are more minority than white students.

“You should be ashamed that it had to come to this,” said Rahman, who noted that South Asians such as her do not have an achievement gap, but feel marginalized when teachers and the curriculum itself treat anything outside of U.S. and western European culture as outside the mainstream. “We have been patient and we have been patient. Finally people like me, who are very American, are talking.”

Silverman suggested that the district move forward with the position, but not eliminate the ELL coordinators, who handle testing and placement of ELL students as well as outreach to their parents.


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