Meetings to discuss honors program changes
North Hills School Board members will vote next month on whether to eliminate the junior high school honors program that offers separate classes for honors students, a plan that has upset some parents.
"The overwhelming response is … the first word would be dissatisfied or angry. The bigger problem is communication," said Laura Barrett, the mother of a sixth-grader at Highcliff Elementary School who will be in junior high next year.
"When we find little snippets in the corner of the (newspaper), and that's how they want to inform the parents, that's not good communication. I've been trying to find out what are they talking about and who it's going to affect, and we still don't have straight answers from our administration. They are political answers that try to smooth over and pass the buck."
District spokeswoman Tina Vojtko said parents will have the opportunity to learn more about the changes at one of four informational meetings.
"Anytime there's a change in curriculum, you're going to have concerns how is it going to affect my child, how will the changes work," Vojtko said. "We want to make sure a lot of those questions are answered before the board takes a vote."
The vote is scheduled for Feb. 17.
Assistant Superintendent Donald Wills said the change was recommended by the district's Curriculum Council.
Wills said qualified students still would have instruction that recognizes they can take on more difficult work than their classmates.
"We would continue an accelerated approach in math and science, where appropriate," Wills said.
Based on the new policy, that acceleration would have to begin in seventh grade. Administrators would use a blend of local and standardized assessment tools, such as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and Terra Nova tests, as well as previous grades to determine which students are accelerated.
Accelerated students would remain in regular classrooms. The difference would be in the work assigned to them.
Wills said he did not have data for how many students are in the honors program — separate classes for math, science, English and social studies.
"I think the major concern coming from the parents is the concern that without an honors program, their children's needs will not be met," he said.
But, he said, research shows that placing students in classes in which children have a range of abilities provides a more comprehensive overall learning experience.
Accelerated students also would help mentor their peers, Wills said.
"That's one aspect of it, but I wouldn't overplay that," he said. "The real basis for what is being proposed is one of our fundamental beliefs of our plan is every student can learn.
"Research supports the proposal, and other school districts with whom we would compare do not have an honors program."
Barrett said she is particularly unhappy about the idea of students doing group projects with classmates of different abilities and the mentoring aspect.
"We do not want that to happen — group work and mentoring. It's not a child's responsibility to teach the other students," she said.
"I think it's a myth to assume that because they are honors kids that they would lead the group or that they would want to lead the group. I think it's safe to say they become leaders by default because they want to continue learning. It's not a benefit to the students."
Wills said the new approach would make requirements for entry into the accelerated program for math and science more objective.
"If the teacher recommendation (was negative), and the parent requested it, the student has been admitted" to the existing honors program nonetheless, Wills said. Such an approach could be detrimental to a student's education, he said.
"Our belief — in terms of a teaching staff, as an administrative staff — we believe that this will benefit every student across the spectrum," he said.
Informational meetings on the possible elimination of the North Hills Junior High School honors program will be conducted at 7 p.m. on the following dates at the following locations:
For more information, go to www.nhsd.net on the Web.