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School board considers delaning freshman English

Published February 8, 2014

Under a proposal being considered by the Board of Education, all incoming Palo Alto High School freshmen would take English 9A, which would replace the current two-lane system that offers students the choice between English 9 and English 9, Accelerated (9A).

According to English Department Instructional Supervisor Shirley Tokheim, the change is being considered because the current system no longer adequately fits the needs of students at different levels. Both English 9 and English 9A are considered college prep, with English 9A supposedly offering an “accelerated” option – but according to Tokheim, this may no longer be the case.

“There doesn’t seem to be a big difference in the curriculum [between the two classes],” Tokheim said.

Paly’s ninth grade English teachers teach both English 9 and 9A, and so often use the same curriculum and grade breakdown for both lanes. According to Kindel Launer, the leader of the freshman English teachers, both courses cover the same material in similar timeframes, with both classes beginning to write five paragraph essays in the middle of the year.

“The way we teach writing is the same in both freshman English classes,” Launer said.

The English Department has also found that English 9 and 9A do not necessarily have differently skilled students. Students who score well on the California Standards Test (CST) in English in 8th grade end up in both lanes, as do students who score poorly.

“Students in each class are coming in with the same profiles as learners,” Launer said.

However, while similar students may take either class and learn the same material, many students in the lower lane do not take honors classes as juniors and seniors even if they are qualified. Tokheim and Launer attribute this to an unwillingness to switch up due to misguided beliefs about preparedness or skill level.

“Many students in English 9 could take 11H [11th grade American Literature Honors], but don’t partially due to their belief about their English skill that led them to take a lower lane,” Tokheim said.

Freshman Site Council representative Candace Wang agrees that there are psychological effects to laning.

“I just think it’s a mindset thing… when you put ‘accelerated’ at the end of a course it sounds tougher,” Wang said.

The issue of qualified students becoming ‘stuck’ in lower lanes may be contributing to declining specialization in English in general. According to Principal Kim Diorio, overall AP English enrollment has decreased over the past few years.

“There’s a whole series of unintended consequences to class decisions in 8th grade,” Launer said. “I’m not sure that at 14 [years old] they [students] understand the consequences of their [class] decision for their education… but it’s imperative that every kid gets a shot their freshmen year.”

With that principle in mind, according to Launer, all students could be placed in 9A next year. Under the new system, teachers would provide a level of difficulty tailored to the needs of each student, who would progress through the class together and then choose their lane going into tenth grade.

“We will be differentiating within the same classroom,” Launer said. “Students with an advanced profile will be pushed to discuss more advanced ideas, and perhaps to revise more often… differentiation in an English class happens in the moment for each person.”

The 10th grade alternate English class Facing History and Ourselves and 9th grade TEAM English classes currently have two lanes of students within the same classroom. These classes use differentiated rubrics and assignments like those that could be used for next year’s English 9A, according to Launer.

The proposed change is not without its detractors, however. Many parents and students, such as Site Council parent representative Hayley Gans, feel that delaning could be detrimental to the needs of more advanced English students.

“There is a lot of concern about challenging all the students in a class,” Gans said.

Freshman Site Council representative Ethan Teo had similar concerns.

“A lot of times the higher level students will not feel as motivated and might not progress as they would if they were in a higher level class,” Teo said.

The delaning proposal was presented at the Board of Education meeting on January 28, and the Board will hold a final vote on the plan soon.


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