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School Board to Make Decision on Honors

Members will vote on restoration of five honors courses in Thursday's board meeting

After a nearly two-hour work session Monday about honors courses, the Fairfax County School Board will consider a motion to in Thursday's meeting.

Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) will introduce a motion that would call for English Honors 11, World History Honors 2, U.S./VA History, English 12 and U.S. Government to be included in the 2012-13 course catalogs for in-person instruction. English Honors 11 and World History Honors 2 are currently offered online.

The work session focused on determining a timeline for the courses' restoration, to be included in Storck's motion, and what that timeline would mean for the curriculum of each course.

"To put this off for another year when for 15 months the community has been asking this school system to be responsive, to provide these honors courses, I'm really worried about our kids," member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said in her argument for instituting the courses for the fall, a position she held as a member with the Restore Honors advocacy group before taking office in January.

Superintendent Jack Dale, echoed by assistant superintendent of instructional services Peter Noonan, said if introduced this fall, the curriculum for each honors course would essentially blend the curriculums of counterpart AP- and standard-level courses, rather than follow an entirely new set of guidelines.

The online honors courses now offered are described as AP courses without the AP tests, a description not acceptable to the parent advocacy groups — Restore Honors and Fairgrade — that have been . Noonan said the previous curriculum for both honors courses was also very similar to the AP courses.

Member Ted Velkoff (At-large) said the board should treat restoring honors as an opportunity to create a better curriculum systemwide.

"For me the goal is reinvigorating the curriculum with something new. To me, this is the prize. In fact, to me this is the subset of the prize, which is looking at our curriculum throughout the entire system at all levels," Velkoff said. "To me, we're missing something if we don't treat this as an opportunity to start heading down that path."

Many of the school board members expressed interest in allowing the courses to be rebooted for this fall with the added responsibility of creating a more robust curriculum for the courses in the future.

"I support moving forward with this in the fall. ... I would think that we could come up with a course, the best of what we could do for the fall, and still in the longer term look more in depth at what we want to do down the road," Sandy Evans (Mason) said.

Kathy Smith (Sully) said she did not agree with reinstating honors courses, while Chairman Janie Strauss (Dranesville) expressed reservations based on what she has heard from high school faculties.

"I'm frustrated, disappointed that I think that the board isn't asking consequences questions," Smith said. "I do not believe that three tracks serves most of our students well. If it's a question of rigor and workload then I think those are issues we need to address. ... But I think we do more damage to this school system and the students in it by creating a three-level system."

While the Fairfax County High School Principals Association does not support a three-track system, a survey from the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, one of the county's teachers unions, shows 76 percent of union members who responded supported the proposal to reinstate the five honors courses.

"While we [principals] feel that certainly honors courses will address the needs of a small portion of our students, we did not feel that a third track was in the best interest of all of our students," said Mark Merrell, the principal of Madison High School and head of the Fairfax County High School Principals Association.

He also said principals are concerned with how the restoration of honors will affect the strides schools have made in increasing enrollment in AP courses, which they have successfully done over the last few years.

Since FCPS eliminated honors courses, enrollment and success in AP courses has increased. From 2008 to 2010, the number of students participating in AP increased from 14,220 in 2008 to 15,270 in 2010, and the percentage of students earning AP exam scores of 3 or higher, the score typically needed to earn college credit, improved from 72 percent in 2008 to 74 percent in 2010.

"The history of this issue is five years ago we started losing honors classes and I think we went down the wrong path," Storck said. "It wasn't something we specifically did other than identify that we wanted more kids to take AP classes, something I strongly support. And that wasn't the way to go. This, in my eyes, just resets it to the point that we give people opportunities and we then can really start to address what, in my mind, we've taken away."

Barbara Hopkins January 26, 2012 at 04:14 PM
I agree with many of the comments above. I was surprised when my high schoolers tried to put their schedules together that there were so few "in between" level courses offered. We were told by our advisor that a lot of kids sign up for AP at the beginning of the year, and later drop out because they can't keep up. I should also add that one of my children, who transferred into FCPS after being in a private school, did not get any additional credit for honors classes he took at his other school, because FCPS doesn't offer anything similar. This brought his official GPA down significantly, which was a bummer. The only hesitation I have to joining a full-on push to restore these honors classes is the possible cost or sacrifice of other programs to pay for them. Was cost an issue when they were first eliminated (I don't know the answer to this question)? Would additional teachers be required to teach these courses, or not? I have children on all parts of the academic spectrum (gifted to needy) and a couple athletes thrown in there too, and I would hate to take from one to pay for another. Would potential cost be discussed prior to the decision to restore honors classes, or after the fact?
Amelie Krikorian January 26, 2012 at 09:17 PM
You still need the same number of teaching personnel, regardless of whether the class is called AP or honors or regular. The honors and AP classes are no smaller and certainly don't get any kind of exotic materials for teaching. The only cost would be the additional materials -- AP and honors classes tend to cover more ground. While a regular English class might read 2 books in a quarter, an honors class might read 3 and an AP class 4...but canceling honors classes over what might amount to a couple thousand dollars at most is ludicrous. If you think about it, pushing kids into AP classes is probably more costly for everyone -- both for additional materials and for tutors to assist the kids who really should be a step lower.
Ashley Zillian January 27, 2012 at 03:16 AM
Money should not ever be the reason to impede upon a student's opportunity to learn at a level that suits them. FCPS has enough money to support the purchasing of any of these potential materials that would be needed--- They just choose to spend the money in utterly useless things, like expensive security cameras for schools with little crime, and a computerized late pass system that isn't even remotely efficient or worthwhile. Even then, there's no law (as far as I'm aware) that says that Honors courses have to be taught solely from the textbook. We have online AP textbooks (Though we all hate them, but that's another story) that could be used as a supplement to worksheets and other course materials that the teacher, or whoever it is that decides curriculum, could print out and use as the main information source. Or vice-versa. Besides, if they could afford it before, that means that their budget could handle it at that point in time. Why not now? :) Well, that's just my take on it. I'm not well-versed on how one runs a school system.
Amelie Krikorian January 27, 2012 at 11:46 AM
I wasn't suggesting that honors classes cost the system more -- I was proving they probably cost the system less than AP classes. They use some of the same resources but not as many. And online textbooks do have a cost -- I took several online classes for my master's degree and was charged as much as $90 to simply use an online textbook for the duration of the course. That should not be the case because nothing is being used up, nothing had to be printed, but I think textbook publishers have some kind of deal in place to charge that much so they don't go out of business after going to the expense of printing a book.
leticia February 01, 2012 at 02:27 AM
There seem to be three measures of good ol boy "my schools better than yours" muscle flexing amongst principals and administrators particulary in this county. This is "I have more AP classes than you have in your county" and "I have higher SOL scores than your school" and "I have more kids getting National Merit scholarships than you do". That is what this is about. It does not cost more to teach AP classes. In some school districts they not only offer an array of both Honors and AP classes but they also offer team taught Honors and AP classes, they are actually even giving children with disabilities the assistive technology and support they need to pass both of these so "all children" are able to create success. Those school systems, with much less funding than FCPS also have programs like mentoring in all their schools to support their students (FCPS has mentor works funded but many of the schools refuse to allow mentoring and collegiate sucess programs saying "it takes time away from class work", which is really FCPSeze for "it is too much trouble"). I worked for a company that promoted "green technologies" but it is easy to see this school systems use of the term "green" is motivated to save the schools effort and to have to expend as little money on students as possible. They use this term as an excuse to not provide books for many AP, Honors and general ed classes and for not having to give copies of makeup work or lecture notes and for not educationg.

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