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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

School Board to Make Decision on Honors

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."

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