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Jason Walsh: Honors English – to be, or not to be?

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When the Sonoma Valley High School administration announced last week it would not be offering its 11th and 12th grade honors English classes next year, the negative reaction from parents was as predictable as literary symploce.

And if you had to google what the obscure poetic device “symploce” means – a repetition of words both at the beginning and at the end of successive clauses – you probably didn’t take honors English. Or, perhaps more appropriately for this column, you probably didn’t take AP English.

And, if that’s the case, you wouldn’t be alone in Sonoma.

That’s because AP, or advanced placement English, doesn’t have as high an enrollment as the other English classes at the high school – and school administrators are hoping to reverse that trend.

AP is the most challenging of the three English-class options – along with mid-level “honors” and regular, or “college prep” being the third alternative. It seems that when weighing their English class choices, along with the litany of other commitments teens face in any given year, a larger pool of students opts for the safe mid-range demands of honors English. Easier, but not easy. A challenge but not overwhelming.

In eliminating the 11th and 12th grade honors English courses, SVHS officials say they’re trying to prod more kids to take the more challenging coursework, as it will benefit them both academically and with college credit for those who pass the AP exam.

“For the past handful of years,” SVHS Principal Kathleen Hawing wrote in a letter to families, “the two English AP courses – two at each (grade) level – have had enrollment in the low 20s.” Some of the classes even dipped down to 18 or 19, wrote Hawing. The school is trying to bolster those numbers to not only better prepare kids for college, but to better prepare them for adult life, where writing skills and content analysis grows in importance as communication modes continue to shift from the spoken to the written word.

The move by SVHS reflects a growing trend among high schools to scale down the number of different academic levels – sometimes referred to as “pathways” – offered in their course catalogs; Hawing says neither Napa nor other Sonoma County high schools offer three levels to juniors and seniors.

Among the reasons for the shift is that many districts find that when there are more pathways available at a school, the fewer minority students wind up in the most challenging courses. Hawing didn’t directly address whether that’s a problem at SVHS, but she conceded that “issues of access and equity have also been considered.”

While Hawing said the decision was “not primarily a budget issue,” it doesn’t take an AP math teacher to see that low-enrollment classes don’t add up financially. As the high school moves up toward 29-student class sizes – a result of staff cuts the school district made to save $2.5 million in the budget – offering AP English courses that contain only 20 students is a problem.

The scaling back of pathways may be a trend in education circles – but so, too, is fierce parental opposition to that trend. Within days of Hawing’s announcement, nearly 200 SVHS parents had signed a letter condemning the move as “unacceptable.”

The letter blasted the timing of the announcement, the “opaque” process, the alleged lack of input from English teachers and that no research was presented to demonstrate that the “decision will lead to better academic outcomes.”

While communication methods are always debatable, what shouldn’t be open to discussion is whether schools are expected to provide research or evidence of efficacy to parents and students prior to making important decisions. They’re not, nor should they be. Administrators are hired to make difficult decisions based on their experience running schools, not test the waters every time they wanted to mess with Home Ec.

That being said, when it comes to sudden changes that might affect the English portion of a student’s college application, sometimes reading the room is as important as reading “MacBeth.”

When honors English courses have been cut in recent years at other high schools, parent outcry has been voluminous. No less would be expected at Sonoma Valley High.

If we at the Index-Tribune were running things at the high school – and thank goodness for Sonoma Valley we’re not – we’d consider keeping Honors English for another year. That way next year’s 12th graders can complete the pathway, but at the same time make it very clear the school would entirely phase out that option for juniors and seniors in the 2019-20 catalog. A compromise like that would delay the school’s goals by a year, but ultimately get SVHS to where it wants to be. It would also give current honors enrollees more time to consider the AP course which, like many unknowns in life, probably isn’t as daunting as it seems – and is likely highly rewarding. Take it from an English lit grad.

That extra year would allow time to phase out the honors courses, and allow time for students to warm to advanced placement.

A time to cast away stones,

A time to gather stones together.

Now that’s a simple solution. And a symploce one, as well.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.