By Rachel Goff

Over the past month, a public Facebook group created by Harwood Union High School senior Ethan Carr called "Homogeneous Classes for Harwood" has acquired almost 400 members, many of whom have voiced their opposition to a proposal to eliminate honors classes for incoming freshmen.

But at the start of a December 18 school board meeting that many teachers, parents and students attended, Harwood Union High School co-principal Amy Rex sought to clarify any misinformation that spread through social media before she and co-principal Lisa Atwood had the chance to present their proposal to the community for their consideration.

As for the initial buzz regarding Rex and Atwood's proposal to create more heterogeneous classes for ninth-graders, "Some of it was incorrect. A lot of it was taken out of context," Rex said. "We're not eliminating the honors in 10th through 12th [grade]. In ninth grade, we're looking at structuring it differently."

Rather than "eliminating honors classes," Rex uses the term "regrouping" when talking about the changes that could affect incoming freshmen. Traditionally, schools have relied on tracking, or grouping students according to ability level, but Rex and Atwood believe that there are many different ways to group students, including by their readiness, learning styles and interests.

By grouping students according to criteria other than ability, "you get to be more fluid," Rex said, explaining that, within a classroom, different students can have the opportunity to take the lead depending on the unit of study.

When students are grouped according to ability, "research shows that students in the lower tracks ... their performance declines over time," Rex said. "They don't believe they can make gains. They recognize that they're in a different track."

The widening achievement gap has dominated conversations about education reform at the national level in recent years and Rex said she's seen it happening within her own school. "I don't think there's anyone within the walls of Harwood that would say, 'If we take away tracking, it will solve our problem,'" Rex said, but regrouping classes for students just starting high school could have a marked effect on the rest of their academic career.

"The ninth grade is the gateway to high school," Rex said, and "there is research that shows that if students aren't having an engaging, challenging [and] supportive experience in the ninth grade, it changes their trajectory."

But Rex and Atwood wouldn't just regroup ninth-graders and leave it at that. Their plan for creating heterogeneous classes would include the identification of areas that all students must achieve toward graduation, as well as professional instruction for teachers on differential and student-centered learning strategies.

Even with heterogeneous ninth-grade classes at Harwood, through "personalized learning plans," or PLPs, students would have the opportunity to demonstrate proficiencies equivalent to an honors distinction, Rex explained. According to her proposal, regrouping ninth-grade classes would ensure a high level of rigor in Harwood's academic program and strengthen options for students in grades 10 through 12 .

In regrouping ninth-grade classes, Rex and Atwood also hope to be able to increase the number of Advanced Placement (AP) classes at Harwood. "We're facing a decreasing enrollment," Rex said. "If we can't fully enroll those AP classes ... we won't be able to offer them."

Several schools throughout the state have already eliminated honors classes in some capacity, Rex explained, including Montpelier High School and Champlain Valley Union High School, which have both gone about 10 years now with heterogeneous classes for ninth-graders.

Maureen Charron-Shea, speech language pathologist at Harwood Union High School, spoke out in support of Harwood adopting a similar model. "I think age 13 and 14 is too young to put students into categories," she said. "The adolescent brain is still developing."

But, Duxbury parent James Jennings countered, "The messages we send our children begin in first, second, third grade," he said, speaking to the effects of standardized testing in elementary schools, and while some conceded that this was true, they still saw value in the co-principals' regrouping proposal.

Legally, schools are required to educate students "in the least restrictive environment, whenever possible," Kathy Cadwell, the head of Harwood Union High School's history department, said, explaining that regrouping ninth-grade classes would be one way to meet that standard.

In Cadwell's 30 years teaching at Harwood, she's seen "what seems to be a growing gap between the 'best' and the 'rest,'" she said, explaining that some students "see each other all day, every day and they're all in these honors classes," and some students "live in a different world," she said.

Creating heterogeneous classes for ninth-graders would increase interaction between students in the high school, Cadwell said, and help ensure equal access to education. "I believe this can be done," she said. "I believe it's the right thing to do."

Still, several students who spoke up at the meeting who self-identified as honors students said that in the heterogeneous classes they took at Harwood they often felt ostracized by other students for getting good grades and wanting to learn. Several also said they felt their learning was impeded by students in the classroom who processed concepts at a much slower pace, although some teachers were able to recognize this and give them extra work.

"Some research shows that when you add tracks, everyone's achievement increases because the teacher can give the appropriate resources to the students—they can spend their time with similar groups," Jennings said, in defense of tracking.

Kevin Kelly, a math teacher at Harwood Union High School, spoke to the burden that teaching more heterogeneous groups of students will have on teachers, who will have to adjust their lesson plans to fit a wider variety of learning needs and abilities. "Yes, it's going to be difficult for us teachers to do this and do this effectively, but it can be done," he said, explaining that students in his most heterogeneous class have demonstrated a deeper understanding of applied math than students in his most advanced honors class.

At any rate, Rex and the rest of the board assured the public that no plans to regroup classes will take place without gathering further input from teachers, students and the community. The December 18 meeting was only the beginning of a discussion "about finding what's best for Harwood," Rex said.

On Friday, January 3, Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) superintendent Brigid Scheffert published a letter and blog post in hopes of clarifying any inaccurate information residents have received regarding the plan and its rollout. "No changes will be implemented next year," Scheffert stressed. "The earliest any change model could be implemented would [be] by FY16," she said. "At least a year-and-a-half is needed to plan, prepare and educate all stakeholders."

Since that letter, Harwood Union's principals have sent out a schedule of public meetings and dialogue on the issue for the coming weeks.