Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Tale of Two High Schools, Part I

It's a cold wet Sunday in January - trying to snow, but covering the streets and sidewalks with sheets of ice instead.  We're invited to our neighbors' for brunch so they can ask my boys about advanced science classes and get the opinions of their slightly older peers. Before we go, though, I follow up with  the guidance counselor of another neighbor.  I've been mentoring Aaron (not his real name) for several years and Aaron isn't deciding between the Chem Phys track and Chem honors.  We're hoping he'll pass geometry so he doesn't have to repeat it next summer.

As underprivileged teens go, Aaron's got it pretty good.  His mother has a steady job, often earning a bonus as employee of the month. She's didn't graduate from high school herself but is determined to do what she can to make sure her son does.  She's enlisted the support of my family and another and calls on us to help her navigate the system. And what a system it is.

Last year Evanston Township High School eliminated a separate honors track for the highest achieving freshmen and required all freshman to take the same humanities class, with an opportunity for all students to earn honors credit.  That is, all students achieving at or above the 40th percentile.  The students who struggle the most with reading and writing were in a separate track "with support".  While upper middle class parents wrung their hands over whether or not their children would be sufficiently challenged in a mixed honors class, I discovered the other ETHS.

Aaron's entire schedule was built around "support" and yet it didn't take me long to learn how weak those supports really are.  In October I attended parent teacher conferences and spoke with his teachers, each of whom clearly knew Aaron and cared about his progress.  The problem is, there's no coordination between the teachers of different subjects.  Although they knew how he was doing in their own classroom, the reading teacher who was considering recommending he pass out of reading didn't know that he was failing English - because he wasn't reading.

I was learning that a parent or guardian has to ask the right questions to get the information that the teachers hesitate to volunteer:  Can Aaron read?