Summit High ‘equal access’: smartening up or dumbing down?
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When Summit High School administrators talk about changes afoot, one of those changes is termed “equal access” – the notion of providing a higher level of curriculum to students of all learning abilities and backgrounds at the same time, in the same classroom. In other words, honors classes have been opened up to all students, not just those opting to enroll in them.
It’s a way to improve student achievement, Summit High School principal Drew Adkins said.
“We are delivering honors level to all,” he said.
High school statistics show there’s a need to encourage students – minority and otherwise – to enroll in a more challenging course load. There’s also the district’s goal to provide “high quality education for all students, ensuring equity and access regardless of differences.”
It’s being piloted in two science classes and one social studies class this semester as well as last. Equal access hasn’t been implemented in English and math, and Adkins said the time isn’t right to do so.
Science and social studies were originally chosen because the curriculum is the same across all levels, Adkins said, which isn’t true for math and English. Because they don’t exactly match, they’re not ripe for implementing equal access.
Science teacher Chris Lambrecht wasn’t initially sure he bought into the equal access concept, but was asked to give it a shot. By implementing it the best he can, he’s seeing successes he didn’t expect. Subsequently, he’s warming up to it, though he says he still sees the other side – honors and general classes that are separated.
“(Students) have a chance every day to prove they’re an honors kid,” he said about equal access. He said students are gaining confidence through their exposure to higher-level thinking.
“Are we seeing increases in students challenging themselves? Yes,” Adkins said, showing data that enrollment in freshman honors civics more than doubled this year compared to last. And that’s with a smaller freshman population this year.
Adkins said teachers in these classrooms teach to the upper echelon of students as they present the curriculum. The idea is to expose all students to the same material and then challenge each student in a student-specific way – and sometimes offer extra help to those not getting it.
Lambrecht said that’s one of the challenges. Teachers are tasked with catering to more students with greater gaps in ability, all at the same time – and to be fair in helping each student the same amount. Because of that, as the equal access concept grows, there needs to be more professional development and increased resources.
Catering to a variety of students at the same time is nothing new, though, Adkins said. Even in honors classes, some students need extra help while others need to be more challenged.
“There’s joy in taking a bunch of pieces and putting them together,” Lambrecht said, though “it’s a lot of work, and it’s not easy.”
Given the observations from this year’s equal access classroom, Lambrecht said next steps include finding ways to support the students who need additional exposure to the material – something a revised schedule could assist. High school administrators are reviewing options for modifying the schedule to meet this and several other goals, and with more class sections catering to the higher level, high-achieving students could experience fewer scheduling conflicts.
Progress monitoring is also important as implementation moves forward, Adkins said, to ensure achievement levels don’t decline, that students are amply prepared for junior- and senior-level classes, and that the curriculum doesn’t change.
In the broader community of students and parents, there’s a concern that equal access “dumbs down” the curriculum instead of raising the bar for low-achieving students.
Karen Mathis, a parent of elementary-aged children, said she’s found data that shows low achievers benefit from such exposure, and the same research shows the benefits aren’t the same for high achievers.
“In our allocation of resources, I want to be sure the money is spent right, and that we’re not just focusing too closely on one group,” she said.
School district volunteer Suzi Lazo said she wonders how high achievers can be challenged in an environment where they’re not surrounded by other highly motivated students.
“I’ve seen it for years, trying to mix higher achievers with lower achievers,” she said.
For students, opinions are mixed. Some say they never would have otherwise taken the honors class, but are excelling in it, board member Margaret Carlson said.
“Several are benefiting from being given the opportunity to do the more in-depth work,” she added.
Like sophomore Grant Koch, who said he can see the issue from both sides, but “can see the pros more than the cons.”
He benefits from the ability to ask other students for help rather than relying on the teacher to make the rounds. Different students may be trying to reach different levels of understanding the material, but they can work together as they progress. He thinks teachers are adequately challenging students, though he’s heard higher achievers say their progress is slowed by having less proficient students in class.
“I’m challenged as much, if not more, in these classes,” Koch said.
But Kristina Klug, a student experiencing equal access in her classes, sees that some students opt not to challenge themselves even when given the exposure to more advanced material.
And Alexis Bukaty said she doesn’t feel challenged in her science class because she can tell that some students aren’t as engaged as others.
“I’m interested in science,” she said. “I’m hungry for it. I want to be pushed more.”
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