Fairfax School Board expands honors courses

January 27, 2012

The Fairfax County School Board voted Thursday night to expand high school honors courses, reversing a policy that was championed by Superintendent Jack D. Dale and that became a central issue during fall’s School Board campaign.

The move came in response to parent activists’ calls for change and signaled the willingness of the board — composed of six veterans and six members elected in November — to challenge Dale’s leadership of the region’s largest school system.

“I think the voters said they wanted something a little bit different,” said returning member Daniel G. Storck (Mt. Vernon), who introduced Thursday’s motion to offer the honors courses. “We’re reflecting what the voters wanted.”

Storck’s motion passed 11 to 1 and means that beginning in fall, five additional courses will be offered at high schools: honors English in 11th and 12th grades, as well as honors world history and geography 2, honors Virginia and U.S. history, and honors Virginia and U.S. government.

All five courses would be offered face to face if there is sufficient enrollment. Currently, two of the courses are offered online; the other three aren’t taught.

“This is about helping more of our children to succeed. This is not about causing our students to be stratified,” said Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), who supported the change.

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 to encourage students — especially low-income, black and Latino students — to choose more rigorous courses.

That appears to have made a difference. The number of students taking AP and IB tests has risen somewhat, and so has the proportion of black and Latino test-takers.

But eliminating honors courses provoked criticism from some parents, who argued that it forced students to decide between standard-level courses that are too easy and college-level courses that are overly demanding.

Activists argued — and the majority of board members agreed — that it does students no favors to push them into classes they’re not ready for.

“General education students need to be able to stretch, but they need to stretch to honors and not stretch too high to AP and fail,” said parent Laurie Dodd, one of 10 community members who testified in favor of honors courses Thursday.

The previous board held a summer work session on the issue but took no action. This board was set to reconsider it in February, after students begin registering for fall classes — effectively putting off changes until 2013-14. But Storck sped up that timeline with an unscheduled motion at the board’s Jan. 12 meeting, which set up Thursday’s vote.

The honors courses next year will be more rigorous versions of standard-level courses. In addition, the board voted to examine course offerings systemwide with the goal of developing a plan for long-term change.

Kathy Smith (Sully) cast the sole vote against expanding honors courses.

Also Thursday, board members unanimously approved a capital improvement plan for the next five years and asked for the authority to spend more money each year on renovations and construction.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors allows the school system to spend up to $155 million a year on capital projects, about $50 million less than officials say is necessary to keep up with facility needs.

The School Board, acting on a motion offered by Ilryong Moon (At Large), voted 9 to 3 to ask the supervisors to increase that to $180 million each year.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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