The debate over Policy 601
February 26, 2020
Policy 601 is a standard for Edina Public School’s curriculum applications and educational opportunities for students. In the fall of 2019, there was a proposal to modify the policy to add a customizable curriculum for students in grades 3-12 which involved increased selective accelerated and advanced learning opportunities through the addition of enriched classes. Although these changes were approved on Nov. 18, the proposed changes were placed on hold by the new board on Jan. 13.
Enriched classes enrich student learning on all levels
As Edina High School reconsiders the addition of more enriched classes, the Edina Public Schools board must not overlook the benefits of ability-based classes. Enriched classes help not only students who require accelerated curriculum but also allow students in standard classes the personalized attention needed to succeed at a greater rate. At its core, personalized learning is meeting each student where they are in their educational journey, and the ability for students to participate in classes of different levels is essential to achieving this goal.
Separate classes based on ability level allow teachers to more specifically target the needs of their students. “Each student needs high-quality support, and that support won’t look the same for each student,” former Edina School Board member Amir Gharbi said in his report on the need for enriched classes at all levels, “Honoring Student Differences.” Although some range in ability is beneficial within classes, large ranges create a lack of appropriately challenging material.
For students performing above grade-level, separate enriched classes provide a more stimulating learning environment while maintaining balance. EHS’s Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum allows students to take more rigorous classes, but some high achieving students often overwhelm themselves with these AP classes. “We’re asking kids to do things that it’s not natural for them to do sometimes, and then it’s putting undue pressure to stand out in a way that they’re making themselves basically sick. It should be more appropriately matched,” EPS teacher of fifteen years Linda Friede said. By providing enriched classes along with AP classes, motivated students are still able to have a more robust curriculum without being required to take all college-level courses as high schoolers.
Given that mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, are a common concern for today’s teenagers, different levels of classes relieve the pressure to take multiple AP courses for above-grade-level students. Instead, these students can take a mix of enriched classes and AP classes that they are passionate about, while still maintaining a healthy balance between school and extracurriculars.
Homogenous ability-based classes also benefit students in standard classes. In her experience as a math teacher who specialized in working with below-grade-level students, Friede believes separate classes allow these students a chance to grow at a faster rate than if they were in heterogeneous classes. “[Below grade level students] have an opportunity to shine [in the classroom] for the first time in their lives. They’ve never been a leader, but you have the chance for them to understand what it feels like [in these classes],” Friede said.
In addition to homogenous classes, targeted attention is also needed in order to facilitate individual student growth. “With that type of support, [students] can go way beyond grade level,” Friede said. She found that especially in math classes, providing supplemental teaching on background skills allowed students to get back on track with peers at a faster rate. Targeted attention is logistically easier for a teacher to provide in a homogenous classroom in which ability levels are similar. Eventually, this model allows students who were previously underperforming the chance to take more robust enriched courses in their areas of strength or interest.
A greater variety of classes also provides students with “on-ramps” and “off-ramps,” which empowers them to make the best educational choice for themselves. This flexible strategy allows students to easily try different level classes (on-ramps), but does not trap students in a certain path by allowing students to switch classes (off-ramps). By providing different difficulty levels for classes, students are able to try an enriched class to determine if it is a correct fit while not trapping themselves in the rigor of an AP class. For example, a student interested in Biology can take Enriched Biology, and can then make an educated decision on whether they should choose to take AP Biology the following year. Instead of being forced to jump from standard science to AP science, students are more adequately prepared for AP classes by testing out an enriched option.
For EPS, the addition of enriched classes as stated in school board policy 601 creates consistency throughout the district in the level of courses offered by filling in gaps. “The changes are not as sweeping as have been depicted,” current EPS School Board member Owen Michaelson explained. In fact, the changes would only add seven classes across grades 3-12, such as Enriched Language Arts from 6th-10th grade, providing an opportunity for students to remain in an accelerated program before reaching AP United States Literature and Language in 11th grade. However, the addition of these challenging, enriched classes is essential to promoting continuous student growth from elementary school through high school.
Ultimately, helping all students develop curiosity, critical thinking skills, and knowledge should be the goal of education. “The key to excellence is viewing students as individuals and celebrating their personal growth,” Gharbi said. Only by providing the opportunity for robust enriched programs in addition to standard curriculum, and allowing students to determine their own path based on interests and strengths will each student reach their full potential and achieve EPS’ vision of excellence.
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“Enrichment” in policy 601 yields devastating consequences
Although enrichment and diversity can be beneficial to students in an educational setting, “improvements” must be interpreted through a holistic lens that takes into account constraints. The changes to Policy 601 presented in subsection K cannot be analyzed independently, but must be looked at in context of a strained school budget, the needs of struggling students, and the tradeoffs that are necessary in order to create more enrichment in Edina Public Schools. The halt that was placed on implementation on the changes to Policy 601 on Jan. 13 was one of the best decisions that the school board could have made because it will force us to look deeper at structural issues that need to be changed in the district.
The costs of designing and implementing a new curriculum are extensive to say the least. Just last year there was a frenzy over class selection due to budget cuts and layoffs in the district to fit within budget constraints. In these circumstances, how is it possible that now we have the resources to staff new enriched and honors classes, design a new curriculum, and ask students to make a definitive determination over what “new” classes they want to take without adequate knowledge of preparation?
These inequalities in education have created large divides amongst students. The World’s Best Workforce bill facilitated by Edina Schools’ administrators had five Goal Area and Status Standards from 2018-19: school readiness, to have students be well read by third grade, to close academic achievement gaps, have all students attain career and college preparedness, and that all students graduate high school. While four out of five of these goals were completed at Edina, the only one that lacked sufficient completion was closing academic achievement gaps of students.
With the new proposed changes in enrichment starting in third grade, it is critical to assess the current situation of attainment at Edina in young students. “Last year on MCAs, Edina had 25% of third graders considered not proficient in reading. More staggering is that 63% of third graders that qualify for free and reduced lunch were not proficient,” Nicole Danielson, a leader of the Dyslexia Parent Alliance and a speaker at the Nov. 18 school board meeting, said. While proficiency for all students and enrichment for some seem unrelated, they are not. Important programs in Edina are struggling to provide adequate services for students due to lack of funding. Although Edina has worked to find innovation in reading and is pushing to close the achievement gaps, the funding that the amendments to Policy 601 are extensive and would trade off with important equity programs. These consequences could be dire. “Is there an opportunity for more rigor in our schools for our highest performing kids? Perhaps. But if that is at the expense of teaching our young students the fundamentals of reading it would be devastating,” Danielson said.
Although increased development is important, pressure and advancement come at a cost. Attending Edina Public Schools carries with it prestige and incredible privilege, but also an immense amount of social and emotional weight that students feel everyday. The desire to not only achieve, but to excel, is driven into us from a young age causing mental health problems, anxiety, and depression from the crushing weight of failure. Increasing the levels of classes at such a young age begins this pressure and cements stigmatization of those who choose not to partake in honors classes. The truth is that we already have many options for advancement, and we are just not equipped to handle additional stresses on mental health work at the high school or more generally in the district.
Again, it comes back to the funding question. “At last count there were 2,696 students at Edina High School; there are three social workers. That averages out to 898 students each. There are nine school counselors who each support 299 students. There is one school psychologist, two licensed school nurses, one co-located fraisure mental health professional, and a very part-time chemical dependency counselor,” Pamela Balabuszko-Reay, an audience speaker at the Nov. 18 school board meeting, said. This distribution of counselors to students isn’t sufficient. Although the counselors and health professions do great work, it’s impossible to manage the immense ratio of students to professionals at Edina. Increased funding and staffing in these departments could provide a much needed ease and reduce the burden while providing students more resources for help, but only if money and time is devoted to it.
The stall on the proposed changes to Policy 601 are significant and important because if enacted, the changes will have undue consequences in the district. We should be aiming to provide a more equitable and beneficial system for students, and the changes to Policy 601 will do more harm than good.
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