Teachers, administrators review honors contracting curriculum


Emily Oba

As part of the departments’ normal process, RBHS social studies and language arts teachers are evaluating the curriculum for contracted honors classes.
In 2011 the studies department looked into combining honors and on-level studies classes and implemented the change in 2013 when freshmen first came to RBHS. The RBHS course catalogue offered sophomores and juniors two options for history and English required credits: sections tied to advanced placement classes or on-level courses with the choice to contract for honors. All freshmen were required to take civics, a combination of English and social studies courses, along with the option to contract for honors.
Now, six years later, Columbia Public School (CPS) administrators are re-evaluating the honors’ contracting program here.
RBHS social studies department chair Austin Reed said teachers in his department always appraise how to make their classes better. They often ask themselves if classes need more or fewer essays, speeches and projects. He referenced a recent department meeting as an example of self-assessment where, he said, teachers discussed rubrics used to grade essays.
“We always want to improve and evaluate ourselves, and we’re evaluating honors,” Reed said. “We’re trying to figure out how to do it better. I think one of the greatest attributes any teacher can have is [to be] reflective, [and to] say, ‘Was that good enough? How could I have done better?’ We encourage that mentality in our department.”
Kim Dampier, who is a parent of a RBHS student, said she wants an evaluation. She said CPS Superintendent Dr. Peter Stiepleman told parents at Gentry Middle School (GMS) and RBHS PTSA meetings that equality among class choices would be restored across the three high schools in the 2017-18 school year. She wrote to CPS Board of Education members Helen Wade and Paul Cushing April 1, 2017, asking why there had been no change to the RBHS system.
“Dr. Stiepleman has conversations with parents in many settings,” CPS communications relations director Michelle Baumstark said. “He recalls saying something along the lines of… ‘If it works at Rock Bridge, it could work at other schools.’ That doesn’t mean he would just make a mandate for program implementation. As mentioned before, successful program implementation doesn’t come from a mandate. The school, as well as the program, have to be ready and willing to move forward with implementation. We’re continuing to gather information on the program.”
Dampier said she and other RBHS parents discussed their disappointment that Hickman High School (HHS) and Battle High School (BHS) offered separate English, social studies and honors classes, as well as combined studies classes while RBHS did not have those options.
“As the program stands now [here], honors is only done on a ‘contract’ basis, as far as I know, which in my opinion is just busy work,” Dampier said. “This ‘contract’ work is done outside the classroom and only takes up extra time for students, and for what? I think that honors classes need to be taught separately, as they are in the math and science departments, and also at HHS and BHS in the studies departments. This way students who are looking for more rigor can achieve it.”
(See CHART 1 for details on class sizes at RBHS. These numbers reflect information from before Dec. 15, when numbers are subject to change.)

Lindsey Troutman, CPS Language Arts and Social Studies Coordinator, said curriculum review and revision is a continuous, ongoing process. Along with regular evaluations of classes, teachers look at how to improve their honors instruction.
“I think integrated courses are a wonderful option for students,” said Troutman, who taught AP World Life and Literature and World Studies block as well as single section courses at Hickman High School. “I feel there are elements of ‘single’ section courses that appeal to students, [for instance] schedule flexibility [and] smaller class sizes [are] strengths in either SS or ELA and similarly that there are elements of ‘blocked’ classes that appeal to students such as meeting daily, integration and contextualization and the ability to utilize their strengths in either content to support the other.”
Reed said his department’s appraisal of studies classes was not connected to any parental remonstrances. In fact, he said he was unaware of any grievances from parents.
“We don’t have many complaints, and actually I, as the social studies department chair, have never received an email from a parent wanting to talk about honors,” Reed said. “That’s what strikes me a little odd, but some of the complaints seem to be, actually, I don’t know, I don’t know names of parents.”
Baumstark, however, confirmed that people at the district level and RBHS have talked with parents about honors contracting.
“The district and the school have had several meetings and conversations with parents regarding contracted honors,” Baumstark said. “As with any program, course, curriculum or decision, it is important to always be seeking ways to improve. Contracted honors is no exception. It’s important to evaluate what is working well and what isn’t so we can improve.”
RBHS Principal Dr. Jennifer Rukstad is also aware of some parents’ concern about honors contracting. In the spring of her first year as head of RBHS, she, along with other CPS faculty members, conducted sessions for parents to express their questions on the elimination of a separate honors class for English and history courses.
“It’s honestly pretty easy to get meetings with staff,” Dr. Rukstad said. “It just kinda depends what the change is. If we’re talking about programmatic things, like course changes, that’s a pretty big deal. I guess we really don’t respond to requests for those kind of things because it’s bigger than one person or one school. We will certainly listen to input, and that input will go into decision-making at the school and district level.”
Dampier, as well as other parents, has wanted a reformation in the studies department for several years.
“I have expressed my concerns at PTA meetings that have been attended by RBHS administrators and school board members, and nothing is ever done about this issue,” RBHS parent Cary Colbert, another parent of a RBHS student, said. “I know that Hickman offers separate classes for English and history, and I have reviewed what they [Hickman students] are taught in their [tenth] grade English class, and it is far superior to anything offered at RBHS.”
In an email to Dampier on April 3, 2017, Wade wrote that four years ago CPS teachers realized the English honors classes and on-level English courses had the same curriculum, and the only difference was the enrollment. Wade noted that white and Asian students took the honors classes while African Americans did not. Through these observations, Wade said the decision to eliminate the separate honors course was made.
“A number of parent meetings were held, attended by teachers, [Dr.] Jennifer Rukstad, [then RBHS principal] Kathy Ritter and [then assistant superintendent for secondary education] Jolene Yoakum, and they decided to allow students to contract for honors instead of creating two tracks,” Wade wrote to Dampier. “Data was also collected. For example, the end-of-year scores showed that RBHS students who contracted for honors did as well or better than their HHS or BHS students in just honors classes.”
A day later, Dampier, who had never asked about how race affected the decision, emailed back, asking if there were equal numbers of white, Asian and black students enrolled in the honors classes at HHS and BHS. She saw no reason to have race in the equation and compared it to the likes of CPS getting rid of home economics classes because not enough male students were enrolled. She also asked for the number of students contracting for honors and wondered why the original English and English honors curriculum were the same. In her email, she stated that some parents believed the honors contract was not an effective program. Dampier contended that no matter the race or career path, RBHS students should have the same course offerings and opportunities as the two other high schools. There was no response to Dampier’s last email to Wade.

Honors studies options examined

In response to parent complaints, last spring Dr. Stiepleman asked CPS Director of Data Dave Wilson to evaluate the honors program here. Wilson said he was not finished with his work because he had not had the chance to look at the honors program in-depth, nor had he finished pulling all of the data he needed for an analysis.
Still working on gathering information, Wilson said he conducted focus groups with parents and staff to gain an understanding of the program. He has collected the names of all students in combined English and social studies classes and will use that information to look at their class performance and see how many have continued taking honors in their school years.
Wilson also said he hopes to survey the students to better understand their perceptions of honors contracting.
Furthermore, after looking at students at HHS who took a separate honors English class and RBHS students who contracted for honors in studies classes, Wilson found data that indicated there is no significant difference between students at RBHS and HHS in the writing portion of the American College Test (ACT) scores. Wilson suggests that both approaches to honors produce similar results; however, Wilson declined to share the data with The Rock, stating “providing the data [would be] almost completely meaningless.”
In the 2013-14 school year, her first as principal, Dr. Rukstad oversaw the introduction of ninth graders into her school. Along with these changes, honors contracting was new to RBHS.
“[Honors contracting] wasn’t a great system at the high school level either at that time, but at least at RBHS our teachers had spent years studying this concept,” she said. “We didn’t really come up with the idea. There are other educational institutions, several at the college level, that do this, but the concept of contracting for honors within the on-level classroom came from years of classroom research.”
Reed, who taught honors and on-level classes that were separate at the time, remembers he thought they were not effective as detached courses. He said approximately seven years ago his partner teacher asserted that honors classes weren’t rigorous enough for the title. Also, he said students in the on-level courses they taught together sometimes acted and thought the way one would expect honors students should.
Reed said he reassessed what makes an honors kid and decided such students shouldn’t just read bigger books; rather, they should delve deeper into their study and strive for intrinsic motivation. He also said instead of having kids track themselves as honors students or as on-level students, the department would put all RBHS students together and encourage every individual to earn honors credit.
Though some parents would like independent classes, Reed said the current offerings are best for RBHS. He finds it hard for kids to decide which class to take and believes that if the school would offer both on-level and honors studies classes, students would run into the same problem as they did before.
“Most of my honors classes were all white kids. Most of my non-honors classes were majority black kids,” Reed said. “That felt weird to me because surely there are some black kids [that] are capable of honors, and not all white kids are up for honors, so that rubbed me a little bit wrong. The district has said now for a few years, ‘We don’t like prerequisites’ [to take honors classes]. ‘Cause, you know, we just don’t like them. They like open opportunities for all kids. So I don’t know how you would do it. When I had separate classes before—honors and regular, I don’t want to pretend like my honors classes are perfect; it wasn’t—I had the same [behavioral and comprehensive] issues I had in my honors classes a lot of times I had in my regular classes.”

A student’s view

Junior Isabel Thoroughman has taken on-level civic studies, honors world studies and is enrolled in blocked U.S. history and English as well as earning honors’ credit. While not in favor of the on-level combined English and social studies classes, she considered taking advanced placement but could not because of her focus on her math and science classes.
Thoroughman said the English and social studies parts of her classes are unbalanced and wishes for more of an emphasis on the English side of her class. She said she would rather focus on improving essay writing rather than just reading one book a semester and writing formative and summative essays on social studies subjects.
“Although we write essays and work on improving them, it’s tailored specifically to our rubric for [RBHS],” Thoroughman said. “Even though it’s a regular level class, we’re past middle school and as juniors—almost adults—so it’s reasonable to say the courses could go farther into strategies and specifics of English and language in general.”
Furthermore, Thoroughman finds it difficult to split her focus between a semester-long honors project and her on-level class work. She said to obtain the honors credit, students receive a prompt and choose a subject to answer it with and present their findings to the class. They are also required to read a book to supplement their research.
“While it seems like a good concept to allow some students to independently explore something they’re interested in,” Thoroughman said, “I think it’s hard for teachers to keep up with honors because they’re focused on the rest of the class.”
Concerned with RBHS’ studies program, parents such as Dampier call it an equity issue. They would like to see RBHS students have the same amount of studies class options as HHS and BHS.
(See CHART 2 for details on class offerings)

Dr. Rukstad, however, says describing anything as an equity issue depends on who’s talking and from what perspective that person comes. She said the school is concerned with the equity of students but not the equity of how high schools offer classes.
“It’s difficult for me to see this as an equity issue because honors is offered at every high school—maybe offered in a different way, but it’s offered at every high school,” she said.
Dr. Rukstad said no change is in effect to the studies course offerings. She noted that some people could say RBHS should give the same choices as HHS and BHS, while others might suggest forcing HHS and BHS to provide the same options as RBHS; yet another observer could say individual schools should choose how they want to deliver the same curriculum.
“I don’t see much of a solution. I don’t think it’s that simple of a problem. It’s a very complex problem,” Dr. Rukstad said. “I believe that Dr. Stiepleman also sees this as a complex problem in that the opinion of any one person or one entity about the way to fix that issue is not necessarily the opinion of all of the stakeholders involved.”