Damon Smith, principal of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School

Damon Smith, principal of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

Rumors that honors-level classes are disappearing from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School are wrong, and administrators are simply exploring ways to improve ninth-grade English and world history classes, Principal Damon Smith said.

“We are not doing this underground,” he told the School Committee at its Nov. 1 meeting, explaining the planning and problem-solving to do before he and staff present options formally. “We want to come forward to this body with a plan, and not an idea.”

But word was starting to spread that honors were “definitely being eliminated in ninth grade,” as parents reported being told by teachers, including at a parent-teacher conference, and students believed the stories as well, with one student in school government volunteering that “all the CRLS teachers say that it’s a done deal.”

It prompted committee member Patty Nolan’s motion Tuesday asking the superintendent to undertake “comprehensive outreach” before any recommendation on changes to coursework, and compelled Smith and four of his staff to appear at the meeting to clarify the situation.

“Our goal is to have honors English-language arts and world history for all [first-year students] next year,” Smith said. “It’s not leveling; it’s leveling up.”

Two schools?

CRLS classes are a mix: honors; advanced placement; and “college prep” – which, despite the name, are basic, minimum-level courses. The high school also has several “embedded honors” classes, where students can do extra work to meet honors levels. For the past few years, ninth-grade physics has been taught with this option. Despite students choosing their own course level, it is often said that it’s easy to tell courses apart by the students in them – college prep classes are made up largely of students of color.

This separation begins in ninth-grade classes with the introduction of honors and non-honors courses; from junior kindergarten through eighth grade, most students are in classes that are heterogeneous – mixed racially and economically as part of the city’s “controlled choice” school assignment system. (A recent exception: Seventh- and eighth-grade math includes an “accelerated” class and a regular, on-grade class at each upper school. That separation can carry over into other classes due to scheduling demands.)

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The notion of having heterogeneous ninth-grade humanities classes was introduced formally to the School Committee last year when then-student members Ben Austin and Griffin Andres reported several student groups seeing them as a way to avoid the feeling of having “two schools” and address the achievement gaps between groups of students based on race and income. Heterogeneous humanities classes made more sense than physics, they said, because it’s where people really need to hear different points of view. And creating bonds early in high school – or, in fact, continuing bonds from the heterogeneous upper school classes – would have long-term benefits for everyone.

Superintendent Kenneth Salim agreed targeting ninth grade made sense as an “important transitional year” that could change how underrepresented students approach honors classes. It’s when friendships and connections are made, and “you make future course selections because you want to continue with that peer group, and that mostly unintended tracking that takes place gets perpetuated,” Salim said.

Tanya Milner, a dean of curriculum for social studies at the school, said it’s not just about choosing courses based on where friends are, and that students reject courses not because their skills are lacking, “but because they don’t want to be the only student in that class advocating for the voice of students of color,” she said.

Hoped-for outcomes

The physics class opt-in model has had mixed results and has not satisfactorily broadened honors-level work to more students, Smith said, so a different idea is being pursued for first-year English and history classes: They will be taught at an honors level to all students, with supports in place for students who struggle, and increase access to high-level courses for groups that are traditionally underrepresented.

Among academic, race- and class-based issues, “ninth grade is our opportunity to reverse the sort,” Smith summed up.

In one of two approaches being explored, students who “struggle more with literacy” could take English-language arts in the fall and history in the spring with a daily extra class for support, and other students would reverse the order, Milner said. In the other model, all students take year-long ELA and history classes, alternating between the two every other day, with an extra support class in the fall.

Milner pointed to feedback from students and families that two “reading- and writing-intensive courses in one semester is overwhelming,” something that often happens. Both models alleviate that difficulty.

There are details to work out with either model, including critical scheduling concerns with foreign language and Rindge School of Technical Arts needs, staff said, but there could also be scheduling advantages. A yearlong model could lead to more electives opportunities, for instance.

The considered changes also jibe with a third objective: to increase the rigor and breadth of ninth-grade English and history overall. The exercise, Smith said, “necessitates us examining the whole curriculum. I expect that there will not just be a new honors class, but we are aiming to have a way to engage a whole range of learners.” The history and English departments have been working together since last year on curriculum and increasing rigor, reaching back to the upper schools for a starting point.

Committee support

The administration was clearly hoping to wait until the options were more fully fleshed out before presenting them publicly.

“We have talked about this with teachers and students. The process has been thoughtfully engaged in through professional development and consulting with experts,” Salim said, citing Carol Burris of the National Education Policy Center – whose work includes “de-tracking reform” – as a key adviser.

Salim, Smith, Milner and CRLS Dean of Curriculum for English Jennifer Hamilton were joined by District ELA Coordinator Jan Tingle and District Social Studies/History Coordinator Adrienne Stang. Salim also pointed out Karyn Grace and Jean Spera from the Office of Student Services as working on the program.

“That being said, it’s important that we also have a process for communication,” Salim said, once the topic was brought up by Nolan’s order.

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Mayor E. Denise Simmons said Nolan’s motion “allows us to have a conversation about something that has been bubbling around the district for a long time,” but she wanted it set aside.

“I applaud that you are not waiting for a School Committee policy,” Simmons told Salim, Smith and staff. “I don’t want to slow this down [with the policy order]. I’m happy to have you come back and give your progress.”

Other members were also excited, with Kathleen Kelly, Emily Dexter and Fred Fantini expressing hope that rigor would increase for all students and that it would be an important step in addressing the “two school” problem. Richard Harding added support, saying this has been needed for some time, and repeated his longtime plea to change the “college prep” term. “Some families who don’t understand the nuances, who trust that when they read something it means something” will mistake “college prep” classes for advanced-level courses, he said.

Nolan also said she supported the changes and accepted a proposal by member Manikka Bowman to move her motion to the Curriculum and Instruction Subcommittee for further consideration, which passed unanimously.

Smith closed by saying his team would have a “status report around course selection time” in the spring. He also assured the committee that the current proposals are focused on ninth-grade only. “I can’t say we won’t get to grades 10 through 12 in a few years,” he said, “but it will take some time. I look forward to having more conversations in the future.”