Published in the December 27, 2019 edition.


WAKEFIELD — Despite some early concerns from parents, a decision made last February to eliminate 9th grade Honors English starting with the current school year has worked out well so far, according to school officials. Instead of offering separate Honors and College Prep level courses to freshmen, all 9th graders now take the same English course. Honors and College prep classes begin in the 10th grade.

Wakefield Memorial High School English Language Arts Department Coordinator Bridget Hagerty, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Kara Mauro and WMHS Principal Amy McLeod met with the School Committee earlier this month to discuss the impact of the move, now that they have had several months to evaluate it.

Last winter, school administrators argued that eliminating separate Honors and College Prep level classes and having all freshmen take the same course (with Honors-level credit) would provide equity and “promote continuous growth for all students (across the learning spectrum) by increasing student engagement and diversity of discourse.”

The expectation, they said, was that with proper supports, students would rise to meet the challenge to achieve at a high level. They said that the impetus for the change came from the teachers in the WMHS English Department.

But some parents worried at the time that struggling students would tend to hold back the high achievers or that some students might have trouble with the higher expectations of an honors-level curriculum. They expressed those concerns at a forum held last Feb. 6.

But on Feb. 13, the School Committee approved the school administration’s recommendation to offer “one heterogeneously grouped English course for all 9th graders (with Honors weight) that is standards aligned and is differentiated to meet the needs of all learners.”

Having now had several months to evaluate the change, school administrators said at a recent School Committee meeting  that it appeared to be working well so far. They acknowledged that much of the feedback that they had gotten so far was anecdotal. Hagerty said that at the recent round of parent/teacher conferences, most 9th grade parents said that their students were being challenged. Only one parent expressed concern that her daughter was not being sufficiently challenged in English class, Hagerty said.

The educators showed examples of writing assignments and standards used in teaching the 9th grade English classes. They also talked about the rubric that is used to measure student proficiency and growth.

School Committee Chairman Christoper Callanan noted that one goal in having all 9th graders take the same course was to evenly distribute students across ability levels. He wondered if that had been accomplished.

McLeod said that she believed that it had been. While it was hard to show numbers, she said that the feeling among teachers was that the student mix was pretty even.

Committee member Aimee Purcell asked if it was more time consuming for teachers to instruct students of different levels in one class. 

Hagerty admitted that it was more work for teachers, but said that the added individual instruction required also helps them to get to know students better.

Purcell wanted to know why the same teaching approach could not have been used under the system of separate Honors and College Prep classes.

Mauro said that in fact the goal is to apply a similar approach across all departments and grade levels, with teachers serving more as facilitators and students doing more of the “heavy lifting.” Hagerty said that she even uses the same model in her 12th grade Honors English class, individualizing instruction according to student needs.

School Committee member Suzy Veilleux said that she looked forward to seeing more data-driven feedback later in the school year. She noted that the theory was that students would rise to meet the higher expectations while high achieving students would continue to achieve at a high level.

School Superintendent Douglas Lyons acknowledged that more concrete, data driven results will need to be provided and promised to deliver just that in the spring. He also suggested that at the same time more teachers and even some students might be asked to come forward and provide feedback.