Less than four weeks after taking office, members of the new Fairfax County School Board appear likely to reinstate several English and social-studies honors courses in 2012-2013, reversing a policy championed by Superintendent Jack D. Dale and satisfying activists’ call for change.
A final vote will come at the board’s next public meeting Thursday.
If the board approves new honors courses, Fairfax high schools will offer five courses that have been a matter of debate for more than a year: English 11 Honors, World History II Honors, English 12 Honors, Government 12 Honors and U.S. History 11 Honors.
All five courses would be offered face-to-face if there is sufficient enrollment. Currently, two of the courses are offered online and the other three aren’t taught at all.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t offer these courses,” board member Sandy Evans (Mason) said Monday during a work session devoted to the issue. A clear majority of her colleagues also expressed support for offering the additional classes beginning next fall.
Honors-level courses are a middle track between standard-level and college-level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes. The school system began phasing out some honors courses several years ago in an effort to encourage students -- especially poor, black and Latino students -- to choose the more rigorous courses.
That appears to have worked -- the number of students taking AP and IB tests has risen, and so has the proportion of black, Latino and low-income students.
But eliminating honors courses provoked a firestorm of criticism from some parents who argued that it forced students — especially middle-of-the road students — to decide between two imperfect choices: standard-level courses that are too easy and college-level courses that are overly demanding.
The board elected in November -- composed of six veterans and six newbies -- has been more receptive to those concerns than its predecessors, who held a summer work session on the issue but took no action.
“We’re holding them to their campaign promises,” said Kate Van Dyck of the parent group Restore Honors Courses, who said she was “encouraged” by what she heard from board members Monday.
The issue was set to be considered in February, after students begin registering for fall classes -- effectively putting off any changes until 2013-2014. But board member Dan Storck (Mt. Vernon) maneuvered to speed up that timeline, introducing an unscheduled motion at the board’s Jan. 12 meeting to talk about the issue Monday and vote this week.
Peter Noonan, assistant superintendent for instruction, said the new honors courses would be a blend of standard-level and AP curricula. Several board members said in addition to introducing the honors classes this fall, they also want the board to take a longer-term and deeper look at overall high school offerings.
“The goal is reinvigorating the curriculum with something new -- to me this is the prize, looking at the curriculum throughout our school system for the next decade,” said Ted Velkoff (At Large). “We’re missing something if we don’t treat this as an opportunity to start heading down that path.”
The strongest opponent of the change was veteran board member Kathy Smith (Sully), who said she was “disappointed” with the board’s apparent lean toward adding a third track. “You end up sorting kids,” she said.
The long debate over honors has been shot through with concerns that offering a three-tier system contributes to segregation of students not just by academic ability but also by race and class.
That tension was clear at Monday’s work session.
“We’re always going to need standard for kids who have a learning disability or English-language learners,” said new member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), who advocated for honors before she joined the board.
“As a former [English-as-a-second-language] student, I’m offended to hear that ESOL students would be stuck in standard-level courses,” said board member Ilryong Moon (At Large), a native of Korea who knew little English when he came to the United States at age 17.
“I certainly wasn’t stuck in standard-level classes,” said Moon, who graduated from Harvard College and William and Mary’s law school.
McLaughlin later said she had meant to clarify her support for continuing to offer standard classes, and had not meant to imply that certain students would be consigned to those lower-level classes.
Eugene J. “EJ” Coleman III, a senior at Mount Vernon High who serves as the board’s student representative, said the vast majority of students want honors.
Adding that option won’t hold back black and Latino kids, he said.
“I go to a school where minorities are the majority. Since third grade, I’ve been one of the only black kids in my class,” he said.
“If minority students aren’t talking full IB or full AP classes, they’re not taking them. If you add honors -- this gives them the option of pushing themselves and challenging themselves. If anything it helps close the achievement gap.”