SBHS educators examine make-up of honors classes

A recent controversy at an area high school over the academic
and racial tracking of honors classes is causing many educators to
look at the make-up of their honors classes.
A recent controversy at an area high school over the academic and racial tracking of honors classes is causing many educators to look at the make-up of their honors classes.

In 1996, San Benito High School modified its honors program in an attempt to challenge a larger group of students by offering more sections of honors classes.

Instead of having three tiers of honors classes – such as an English 9, 9A (advanced) and 9H (honors) – there are now two tiers – English 9 and 9A.

Also, in 1998, the honors program switched from an enrollment-based extra grade point to one based on performance on an end-of-the-year test. The extra point makes an A a 5.0 instead of a 4.0.

“The change was made for two reasons: to give more students the opportunity to have a rigorous course load and to reward those students who perform well,” said Michael Robustelli, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at SBHS.

SBHS Principal Karen Schroder said the program is open to any student willing to do the work.

Even though the program change has made honors classes available to a wider group of students, the percentage of minority students in the classes has remained the same. And the trend is troubling to school administrators, especially because of controversy at Gilroy High School over the implementation of a pilot honors program.

GHS Principal Wendy Gudalewicz and two assistant principals resigned last school year when the school’s board of trustees approved the development of an honors program at GHS. Two parent groups formed the Alliance for Academic Excellence (for honors classes) and Community Alliance for Fair and Equitable Education (against an honors program) to lobby the board.

Currently, both groups agree that there needs to be an honors program, but CAFEE members want it to be monitored to prevent tracking. They believe separating students into these classes will lead to segregation.

Schroder argues that there is no tracking in honors classes at SBHS. A recent trend shows few students taking all A classes. Schroder said many students cannot handle three or four A classes because of the challenging work load. Also, students do not want their overall grade point average to drop.

“Just because a kid can handle a math A class doesn’t mean they will be enrolled in the other three (core subject advanced classes).”

Robustelli said the number of minority students taking honors classes is not representative of the school’s minority population.

“It’s critical that we look at and measure the distribution (of students in honors classes),” he said. “We’re working toward it.”

Attempts to boost minority enrollment in the honors program has included contacting the top students in each minority group and encouraging them to participate in honors classes and tutoring minority students to help them get enrolled in those classes the next year.

Another worry is the way in which students are placed into honors program at SBHS. Robustelli said students must reach a certain percentile on standardized testing to be placed into an honors classes. Grades are also looked at.

If a student does not meet the prerequisites, they can petition to be admitted into the class.

Some people are concerned that students from Spanish-speaking households won’t enroll in honors classes even if they can do the work because their parents aren’t aware the classes exist and won’t push their children to take them.

Robustelli said that every student entering SBHS is given a course catalog in March of their eighth-grade year before they start scheduling their freshman year. All prerequisites are stated and the possibility of petitioning is mentioned with every class prerequisites.

SBHS offers nine A, or advanced, classes and 13 Advanced Placement classes as part of the school’s honors program. To receive the H, or honors, designation and the extra grade point, students must pass the Golden State Exam at the end of the school year. For subjects that do not have a matching Golden State Exam, students must pass an in-house exam, also at the end of the school year. The H designation is retroactive, covering the whole school year.

For example, a student participating in English 9A will earn the designation of English 9H for the entire school year if they pass the end-of-year exam.

Robustelli said he prefers using performance-based methods to determine the H indication as opposed to enrollment-based ways in which a student receives the H just for enrolling in the class.

“Across the state, only one-third of the students who take the Golden State Exams pass them,” he said. “I think it’s a good evaluation of a student’s knowledge of a certain subject matter in comparison to other top students in the state.”

Even with SBHS’ honors program flaws, both Robustelli and Schroder said there needs to be an honors program at the school.

“The honors program addresses the needs of a certain segment of our student body, just like our fine arts program does, just like our CAPPCOM program does,” Robustelli said. “We need to help kids succeed in the areas of their strength.”

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