Whether they’re in English 9 or English 9A, every freshman reads the same books: “Of Mice and Men,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Animal Farm.” What sets these classes apart is the way the curriculum guides the evaluation and examination of these books. The pacing in the accelerated lane in much quicker and the curriculum is supposedly more in-depth. However, as the Common Core standards sweep in with their comprehensive curriculum and forward-thinking strategies, the Paly English Department’s methods are changing to fit the times.
Or at least, they are trying to. At a Board of Education meeting on Jan. 28, the department proposed a delaning of ninth grade English. The department sought a solution to maximize the number of students reaching and exceeding the Common Core Standards, which have an emphasis on depth over breadth.
The English Department hoped to accomplish this by uniting the two laned freshman English classes into the accelerated class. According to Kindel Launer, one of the ninth grade English teachers working on the proposal, this would be achieved by placing all incoming freshmen into the current English 9A class. Students were expected to benefit from the mixed grouping, which would combine all ninth grade students together while at the same time preparing them for accelerated 10th grade English.
“Students will have a more universal experience in ninth grade and will be better equipped because of the alignment,” Launer says.
This proposal was not created by the English Department hastily. The department first discussed the ideas behind the proposal around seven years ago. More recently, department supervisor Shirley Tokheim addressed the problem the department faced.
“When I first came to work at Paly, I noticed that English 9 and 9A seemed to be organized not so much around ability but around socioeconomic status,” Tokheim says. “Students tended to choose their 9th grade English class based on what their friends were taking, not on their own ability.”
According to Launer, another source of motivation to bring change to the system was the observation that despite the fact that the school population has grown to over 2,000 students, the number of students taking AP and Honors English.
“Why haven’t AP Lit and English 11 Literature Honors’ acceptance rates grown at a proportional rate to the growth in student population?” Launer asks.
This baffled the English teachers, who began investigating and forming the proposal. Further research showed that three Santa Clara County high schools, Monta Vista, Lynbrook and Saratoga, reported higher Academic Performance Index scores and have all detracked English 9 and English 10 classes.
The belief was further strengthened by statistics drawn from the California Standardized Testing English Language Arts scores. According to the English 9A pilot proposal, 80 percent of Paly freshmen score proficient or advanced on the CST ELA. According to Launer, despite the fact that 75 percent of English 9 students score proficient and advanced scores on the CST ELA, they still enrolled in English 9.
“Why are students who are scorings fours and fives, proficient and advanced scores in English, choosing not to take a class that will challenge them?” Launer asks. “Qualitatively, it would appear that students whose scores are high choose a lower lane of English because they’re trying to balance math and science.”
According to Tokheim, the 9th grade English teachers sought to solve the predicament by forming a Professional Learning Community. Tokheim reported that the teachers worked to align their curriculum by creating pacing guides, similar writing prompts and assessments in the process.
“Given that the Common Core standards emphasize depth rather than breadth, it makes sense [that] there is little difference in curriculum,” Tokheim said.
Despite the reasoning behind the proposal, the proposal was quietly ushered away with no more consideration, five days after the Board of Education meeting adjourned at 1:15 a.m.
The events during these five days prompted the community to voice its concern over the Board’s handling of the matter. An editorial on the Palo Alto Online website rebuking the Board’s handling of the matter received widespread support from community members in the comments section.
Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger, commented on the editorial, “I found it surprising how dismissive the Board members were of the well-researched, well-thought out proposal.”
There was discordance in the Board’s handling of the proposal from the beginning. Only 10 minutes were originally scheduled for the proposal, though it was given more time later in the meeting itself. Board President Barbara Mitchell admitted the original scheduling of the proposal was a mistake, stating in an email that “The English 9A pilot proposal deserved and was given much more time than estimated.”
The proposal, however, was not given any more consideration after the meeting. According to Board member Melissa Caswell, a sufficient amount of questions had come up that the superintendent’s office decided to remove the proposal.
Launer expressed her disapproval at the Board’s handling of the proposal.
“I think their manner speaks for itself. If I had elected officials conducting the public’s business at one o’clock in the morning, I would say that that’s not very transparent,” Launer says. “Having a meeting in the middle of the night is not doing their business in public. Do you think it’s best to elect people who conduct their business that way?”
Caswell said the district office was the one to act, rather than the Board members, and that its actions match the majority opinion of the community.
Despite its removal from discussion, Paly’s delaning proposal has sparked change throughout the district.
According to Jordan Middle School’s English Department supervisor Kelly Zalatimo, Jordan will continue to shift its curriculum in support of 9th grade delaning.
“Because Paly’s 9th grade English team has done so much work to align their curriculum, assessments, and general expectations in preparation for a single lane, similar work is underway at Jordan,” Zalatimo says.
Zalatimo says that the delaning of 9th grade English is consistent with the Common Core standards’ shift towards more in-depth, slower paced work as opposed to covering “more” for the sake of acceleration or volume.
“Having a singular 9th grade English lane designed for alignment and consistency allows for the possibility of greater collaboration across disciplines in literary instruction at Paly,” Zalatimo says.
Furthermore, the proposal has led to increased registration for English 9A in the upcoming school year. The 9th grade students had only English 9A available to them on the course selection document for the upcoming 2014-2015 school year, as the guidance department assumed the proposal would be passed. Following the rejection of the proposal, the option to take English 9 has since been added, according to Tokheim.
Despite a letter regarding the addition of English 9 to the course registration, the late addition led to fewer incoming 9th graders signing up to take English 9.
According to Paly’s assistant principal Kathleen Laurence, there are enough signups for one or two sections of English 9 and 15 or 16 sections of English 9A for the upcoming school year, as compared to seven sections of English 9 and 10 sections of English 9A this school year.