A discussion of Niles Township High School District 219’s annual review of programs grew impassioned Monday night when one board member questioned the wisdom of the district’s move to eliminate basic-level math classes as part of a plan to help all students be college-ready when they graduate.
Board member Eileen Valfer was the only board member to vote against the creation of a “geometry extension class” for the next school year, a class that would be similar to the algebra extension class put in place this year. In both cases, students who previously would have been placed in basic-track math classes instead take regular level classes, with an extra period each day – the extension – to get extra support.
But Valfer said forcing students to take an extra period of math each day could eliminate the chance for them to take an elective class.
“How many of those kids can’t take an elective class that might hold them in school?” Valfer asked.
'Unacceptable' number of kids failing
She also said the percentage of students taking algebra extension and earning Ds and Fs – about 20 percent – is “unacceptable.”
“Is the regular class now going to be dummied down for all the kids who shouldn’t be there in the first place?” she asked. “Not every student wants to go to college.”
Superintendent shoots back
Her comments drew a fiery response from District 219 Superintendent Nanciann Gatta, who earlier in the meeting said that that first-quarter grades in the algebra extension classes had surpassed the district’s goals, with 296 of the 324 students in the classes more likely to meet college readiness standards by the time they graduate than if they had earned As in the old basic math class.
“We are not making annual yearly progress (under the No Child Left Behind standards),” Gatta said. “The NCLB reauthorization is looking heavily at college readiness. We are being audited every year by the Office of Civil Rights for having a disproportionate number of some racial groups in the lower tracks. Ninety-nine percent of our kids tell us when they come in that they want to go to college. When they graduate, 39 percent are not college-ready. Sixty-eight percent of those who go to Oakton (Community College) have to take remedial math. It’s a call to action. Maybe this isn’t the right action … but I cannot sit here and say to you the status quo is really OK.”
'Perpetrating a fraud'
Niles North math director David Wartkowski and Niles West math director Robert Williams supported Gatta’s statements, with Williams saying, “We were complicit” in allowing students to take basic math classes that would not give them the skills they need for higher education.
Niles West Principal Kaine Osburn put it more strongly, saying, “We perpetrated a fraud on them.”
Wartowski and Williams pointed out that with most of the extension students succeeding, teachers can focus their efforts on the students who aren’t and try to figure what they need to do to help.
Some students having trouble with multiple classes
One interesting fact is that students at Niles North who are failing algebra are failing an average of four classes, Wartowski said.
“There are not students that are just having trouble with math,” he said. “They are having trouble with school in general.”
Under the administration’s recommendations for next year, the district will move forward with plans to phase out the basic track in English as well. In subsequent years, Gatta said, she wants the district to also eliminate the honors track, which falls between regular classes and Advanced Placement classes, and encourage students who now take honors classes to move into the AP track instead.
While the board voted on and passed the new geometry extension class Monday night, other changes recommended in the annual review of programs will come up for a vote Dec. 12.