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School Board to Make Decision on Honors

Members will vote on restoration of five honors courses in Thursday's board meeting

After a nearly two-hour work session Monday about honors courses, the Fairfax County School Board will consider a motion to in Thursday's meeting.

Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) will introduce a motion that would call for English Honors 11, World History Honors 2, U.S./VA History, English 12 and U.S. Government to be included in the 2012-13 course catalogs for in-person instruction. English Honors 11 and World History Honors 2 are currently offered online.

The work session focused on determining a timeline for the courses' restoration, to be included in Storck's motion, and what that timeline would mean for the curriculum of each course.

"To put this off for another year when for 15 months the community has been asking this school system to be responsive, to provide these honors courses, I'm really worried about our kids," member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said in her argument for instituting the courses for the fall, a position she held as a member with the Restore Honors advocacy group before taking office in January.

Superintendent Jack Dale, echoed by assistant superintendent of instructional services Peter Noonan, said if introduced this fall, the curriculum for each honors course would essentially blend the curriculums of counterpart AP- and standard-level courses, rather than follow an entirely new set of guidelines.

The online honors courses now offered are described as AP courses without the AP tests, a description not acceptable to the parent advocacy groups — Restore Honors and Fairgrade — that have been . Noonan said the previous curriculum for both honors courses was also very similar to the AP courses.

Member Ted Velkoff (At-large) said the board should treat restoring honors as an opportunity to create a better curriculum systemwide.

"For me the goal is reinvigorating the curriculum with something new. To me, this is the prize. In fact, to me this is the subset of the prize, which is looking at our curriculum throughout the entire system at all levels," Velkoff said. "To me, we're missing something if we don't treat this as an opportunity to start heading down that path."

Many of the school board members expressed interest in allowing the courses to be rebooted for this fall with the added responsibility of creating a more robust curriculum for the courses in the future.

"I support moving forward with this in the fall. ... I would think that we could come up with a course, the best of what we could do for the fall, and still in the longer term look more in depth at what we want to do down the road," Sandy Evans (Mason) said.

Kathy Smith (Sully) said she did not agree with reinstating honors courses, while Chairman Janie Strauss (Dranesville) expressed reservations based on what she has heard from high school faculties.

"I'm frustrated, disappointed that I think that the board isn't asking consequences questions," Smith said. "I do not believe that three tracks serves most of our students well. If it's a question of rigor and workload then I think those are issues we need to address. ... But I think we do more damage to this school system and the students in it by creating a three-level system."

While the Fairfax County High School Principals Association does not support a three-track system, a survey from the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, one of the county's teachers unions, shows 76 percent of union members who responded supported the proposal to reinstate the five honors courses.

"While we [principals] feel that certainly honors courses will address the needs of a small portion of our students, we did not feel that a third track was in the best interest of all of our students," said Mark Merrell, the principal of Madison High School and head of the Fairfax County High School Principals Association.

He also said principals are concerned with how the restoration of honors will affect the strides schools have made in increasing enrollment in AP courses, which they have successfully done over the last few years.

Since FCPS eliminated honors courses, enrollment and success in AP courses has increased. From 2008 to 2010, the number of students participating in AP increased from 14,220 in 2008 to 15,270 in 2010, and the percentage of students earning AP exam scores of 3 or higher, the score typically needed to earn college credit, improved from 72 percent in 2008 to 74 percent in 2010.

"The history of this issue is five years ago we started losing honors classes and I think we went down the wrong path," Storck said. "It wasn't something we specifically did other than identify that we wanted more kids to take AP classes, something I strongly support. And that wasn't the way to go. This, in my eyes, just resets it to the point that we give people opportunities and we then can really start to address what, in my mind, we've taken away."

janet otersen January 24, 2012 at 07:44 PM
Amen, that this new School Board is finally making decisions using data and listening to the community. Pushing kids into courses they are not prepared for serves noone's best interests. The only argument that Dale/Noonan/Smith/Strauss had was that it will hurt this false "image" that FCPS has been presenting on our AP/IB participation rates. Nice to see the teachers have input as well. 76% supporting adding honors carries a lot of weight on the topic. Great job--to the Restoring Honors Group!
Amelie Krikorian January 24, 2012 at 09:36 PM
I have kids, and I have to agree: there needs to be an option in between the basic classes and the AP classes. I have a son who is bored to tears in basic English because the discussions are not challenging, but the writing demands of AP English are above his writing skills.
Ashley Zillian January 25, 2012 at 01:43 AM
"Since FCPS eliminated honors courses, enrollment and success in AP courses has increased." Of course enrollment has increased, we can't take Honors courses anymore! We have college to think about, we have to get the extra points to be competitive. Especially with this arbitrary grading scale (Who decided on that anyway? Clearly not a student), we need every point to our GPA that we can get. If 'success' in AP courses is a passing C, then yes, most of us are pretty successful. Those who are actually doing well in AP courses are the ones who genuinely want to take them. Most, however, are here only because there's no Honors coursework anymore-- And they're failing the class. Success, indeed. Honors is the perfect blend of both worlds, being a challenge but not enough to cause you gratuitous amounts of stress daily. There's no logical reason to not re-instate Honors courses. They will not cause the very framework of our schools to collapse. They will let more students succeed at a level of rigor that best suits them. Of course, this is FCPS we're talking about, so their concern over reputation far outweighs any qualms they have about the comfort of their students. Decimating the grading scale, taking away key honors courses, and not to mention never fixing our terrible food options, it's no wonder most students honestly hate how this school system is run. You want your bragging-rights-inducing grade data? Give us back our honors courses.
Heather Barber January 25, 2012 at 02:26 AM
Way to go, Ashley!!! After hosting a group of AP Gov students from your high school this past fall, I can tell you that your opinion is shared by many of your fellow students. They expressed the frustration of not learning anything - being in a class solely to pass the exam at the end. Apparently, many high school principals, including yours, believe that passing the AP exam is "the point" of being in the class. I guess learning is not as lofty a goal. :) I wish more students would speak out - thank you for sharing viewpoint.
Wynne Kelch January 25, 2012 at 12:11 PM
Five honors courses is a start--and I'm grateful!--but sounds to me like more will be needed. Tailoring the curriculum to student needs and abilities is what good teaching is all about. I still don't understand why the principals and others in the system wanted to end the middle track of Honors. Not every kid can manage a full slate of AP courses, but that doesn't mean s/he should be put in basic classes. I'm amazed that a school system with these huge schools and diverse offerings (Technical Theater?) thinks it can't offer a medium-challenging set of English, history, math, and science for each grade. My tiny high school in Pennsylvania did it.
Aimee Davis January 25, 2012 at 01:04 PM
If FCPS and principals want students to take AP classes, why don't they put their efforts into advising students on their course selection instead of taking away the Honors level? The gap between the regular curriculum and the AP curriculum is too big and just because a student excels in AP in one subject doesn't mean they can handle AP in all subjects. I agree w/Ashley - MANY Madison students would benefit from an Honors level.
Kate Van Dyck January 26, 2012 at 02:39 AM
So glad to see all the positive comments regarding the restoration and addition of the 5 honors courses Restore Honors Courses and FAIRGRADE have been asking for!! I am especially happy to hear from some students from around the county as they are the major stakeholders in this issue, along with teachers who have the skill set to create challenging honors classes that better meet the needs of not just a few but possibly the largest portion of our student population. As a teacher and a parent, I applaud the new School Board for moving forward, not backward! For listening to students, teachers and parents who bear the burden of good and bad decisions made by this administration! We have a great school system but we need to protect the rights and needs of our students to keep it that way, not risk their future to get a higher position on the media driven Challenge Index ! Kate Van Dyck for Restore Honors Courses
Beth January 26, 2012 at 07:33 AM
Thank you for your work on this issue, Kate. Our children appreciate it! At an FCCPTA meeting last year, Peter Noonan led a discussion for over an hour about removing the honors courses. There was not a single parent or PTA member in attendance who agreed. At other FCCPTA meetings and speaking with members in the community, I cannot think of any time that a parent or teacher has supported narrowing the curriculum to drop the Honors' courses. As a former AP US History teacher and a former AP student myself, I like the AP materials. They support critical thinking. They do, however, take a good deal of time and are almost always more difficult than the actual college courses themselves. I saw my students who took multiple AP courses within a year. They were run ragged. Always.
Barbara Hopkins January 26, 2012 at 04:14 PM
I agree with many of the comments above. I was surprised when my high schoolers tried to put their schedules together that there were so few "in between" level courses offered. We were told by our advisor that a lot of kids sign up for AP at the beginning of the year, and later drop out because they can't keep up. I should also add that one of my children, who transferred into FCPS after being in a private school, did not get any additional credit for honors classes he took at his other school, because FCPS doesn't offer anything similar. This brought his official GPA down significantly, which was a bummer. The only hesitation I have to joining a full-on push to restore these honors classes is the possible cost or sacrifice of other programs to pay for them. Was cost an issue when they were first eliminated (I don't know the answer to this question)? Would additional teachers be required to teach these courses, or not? I have children on all parts of the academic spectrum (gifted to needy) and a couple athletes thrown in there too, and I would hate to take from one to pay for another. Would potential cost be discussed prior to the decision to restore honors classes, or after the fact?
Amelie Krikorian January 26, 2012 at 09:17 PM
You still need the same number of teaching personnel, regardless of whether the class is called AP or honors or regular. The honors and AP classes are no smaller and certainly don't get any kind of exotic materials for teaching. The only cost would be the additional materials -- AP and honors classes tend to cover more ground. While a regular English class might read 2 books in a quarter, an honors class might read 3 and an AP class 4...but canceling honors classes over what might amount to a couple thousand dollars at most is ludicrous. If you think about it, pushing kids into AP classes is probably more costly for everyone -- both for additional materials and for tutors to assist the kids who really should be a step lower.
Ashley Zillian January 27, 2012 at 03:16 AM
Money should not ever be the reason to impede upon a student's opportunity to learn at a level that suits them. FCPS has enough money to support the purchasing of any of these potential materials that would be needed--- They just choose to spend the money in utterly useless things, like expensive security cameras for schools with little crime, and a computerized late pass system that isn't even remotely efficient or worthwhile. Even then, there's no law (as far as I'm aware) that says that Honors courses have to be taught solely from the textbook. We have online AP textbooks (Though we all hate them, but that's another story) that could be used as a supplement to worksheets and other course materials that the teacher, or whoever it is that decides curriculum, could print out and use as the main information source. Or vice-versa. Besides, if they could afford it before, that means that their budget could handle it at that point in time. Why not now? :) Well, that's just my take on it. I'm not well-versed on how one runs a school system.
Amelie Krikorian January 27, 2012 at 11:46 AM
I wasn't suggesting that honors classes cost the system more -- I was proving they probably cost the system less than AP classes. They use some of the same resources but not as many. And online textbooks do have a cost -- I took several online classes for my master's degree and was charged as much as $90 to simply use an online textbook for the duration of the course. That should not be the case because nothing is being used up, nothing had to be printed, but I think textbook publishers have some kind of deal in place to charge that much so they don't go out of business after going to the expense of printing a book.
leticia February 01, 2012 at 02:27 AM
There seem to be three measures of good ol boy "my schools better than yours" muscle flexing amongst principals and administrators particulary in this county. This is "I have more AP classes than you have in your county" and "I have higher SOL scores than your school" and "I have more kids getting National Merit scholarships than you do". That is what this is about. It does not cost more to teach AP classes. In some school districts they not only offer an array of both Honors and AP classes but they also offer team taught Honors and AP classes, they are actually even giving children with disabilities the assistive technology and support they need to pass both of these so "all children" are able to create success. Those school systems, with much less funding than FCPS also have programs like mentoring in all their schools to support their students (FCPS has mentor works funded but many of the schools refuse to allow mentoring and collegiate sucess programs saying "it takes time away from class work", which is really FCPSeze for "it is too much trouble"). I worked for a company that promoted "green technologies" but it is easy to see this school systems use of the term "green" is motivated to save the schools effort and to have to expend as little money on students as possible. They use this term as an excuse to not provide books for many AP, Honors and general ed classes and for not having to give copies of makeup work or lecture notes and for not educationg.

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