Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 14, 2014

Proposal nixed for single lane of Paly frosh English

Plan to put all ninth-graders in advanced English classes questioned by board, parents

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto school district officials have withdrawn their recommendation to offer a single freshman English lane at Palo Alto High School — rather than two lanes — after the proposal was met with resistance from school board members and many parents.

Paly English Department chair Shirley Tokheim said Monday that the proposal — a pilot program that teachers had been preparing for 18 months — has been stricken from the Board of Education's tentative agenda for Feb. 25.

"As you can imagine, we are extremely disappointed and upset at the news," Tokheim said.

Paly Principal Kim Diorio wrote a message to parents Tuesday saying that two lanes of freshman English will be offered this fall, as they have been in the past.

Diorio previously had supported the proposed change, telling the board Jan. 28 the plan would address "structural inequalities that exist in our system."

Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he withdrew the proposal after community members raised concerns, persuading him that "there's additional work that needs to be done by the English Department over at Paly.

"Much of that additional work is recognized by the staff at Paly ... and the decision was made that this was not the right time to implement a change," Skelly said.

Currently, second-semester eighth-graders are given the choice whether to take the year-long "English 9" or "English 9 Accelerated" — called English 9A.

But teachers said there's little rhyme or reason as to which students choose which lane — a high percentage of students choosing the "regular lane" have scored "proficient" or "advanced" on standardized English tests, suggesting an aptitude for the more challenging class.

And yet, Diorio told the board Jan. 28, freshmen who chose regular-lane English begin to "self-identify as being in the dummy class — they see themselves right off the bat as not being as smart as their peers."

The freshman choice for the regular lane also makes students less likely to take honors or Advanced Placement English or U.S. History later in high school, English teachers said.

Teachers, with backing from the district office, proposed that English 9A be offered as the single choice for Paly freshmen starting this fall.

"We believe all high-achieving students who enter Paly ... should receive rigorous instruction and benefit from the high expectations of an accelerated English course," Associate Superintendent for Educational Services Charles Young said in his Jan. 28 proposal to the board.

"We believe any struggling students, with appropriate supports, will also benefit from this rigorous coursework."

The "small number of students" who need additional help would get it through tutorials, extra programs and classes, which, in some cases, would be "co-taught" by a special education teacher, the recommendation stated.

The teachers said other high-performing high schools in the area — including Los Altos, Mountain View, Saratoga, Monte Vista and Lynbrook — have unlaned freshman English, and in most cases, unlaned sophomore English as well. At Gunn High School, freshman English is laned.

Four of the five school board members and several parents expressed skepticism about the proposal when it was presented Jan. 28, while other parents and one of the board spoke in support.

Board members said they'd been flooded with emails about the proposed change, and all but Heidi Emberling indicated they were not prepared to vote for it.

They questioned whether the teachers' plan offered enough "specific scaffolding" and intensive extra help for regular-lane students to make them feel successful in an advanced class.

"If we're going to ask our struggling kids, who are already struggling, to go up to 9A (accelerated English) that does have a faster curriculum with more vocabulary and more time on task, then we've got to provide something different," Vice President Melissa Baten Caswell said.

Board member Dana Tom said his "fundamental discomfort (with the proposed change) is trying to understand how you can effectively challenge and support the students in the class when you have a larger range than what you have today."

Board President Barb Mitchell worried that the proposal is "catching parents and students by surprise," with ninth-grade signups already underway.

"What I've learned about our community is that parents and students love choices, and the difficulties about this discussion is it's perceived as a subtraction as opposed to more choices," Mitchell said, suggesting that parents be given more time to digest the proposal.

Board member Camille Townsend said the many lane choices offered to students previously have been cited as a strength of the Palo Alto school district.

But Emberling supported the English proposal as presented.

"I think it's nice to start with a level playing field and differentiating within the classroom," she said. "We trust the professionals in our district, and this is a pilot program."

At the meeting, parents Sara Woodham and Ken Dauber backed the English teachers' proposal while parents Louise Valente, Lauren Janov and Jonathan Foster questioned it.

Skelly said he would do further work on the proposal and bring it back to the board.

The following day, Tokheim announced to several hundred people attending eighth-grade parent night at Paly that English 9A would be the sole choice this fall.

"I also invited the parents to come to one of two parent gatherings at Paly the following Tuesday (Feb. 4) to talk further and have any concerns addressed," Tokheim said.

Nearly 100 eighth-grade parents followed up by attending one of two information meetings offered by English teachers last week.

At a Feb. 4 evening meeting, attended by about 30 parents, some questioned how teachers could sufficiently differentiate their instruction for a special-education student sitting side by side with a highly advanced student.

Others said their children had little interest in an accelerated English class, preferring to devote their time to challenging math and science classes.

Another parent, whose daughter was a special-education student at Paly and graduated from there, said her daughter was bored in regular-lane freshman English but thrived in advanced sophomore English and is now in graduate school.

TALK ABOUT IT

Do you think all Palo Alto High School freshman would benefit from being enrolled in the same level English course? Share your opinion on this topic on Town Square, the community discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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