When I started as principal of Shaker Junior High School, it is safe to say that my beliefs, philosophies, objectives were not completely formed. After all, my previous experience had been limited to one school, so I did not have any exposure to different district climates and expectations. I was inheriting many existing programs and was in no position to analyze the effectiveness of those programs or even the need for any of them. Thus, I felt an obligation to maintain them, which, given my lack of knowledge of alternatives, was rational and appropriate.
At that time we had one section of an enriched 7th grade math class that we called “Math Lab”. This class was for the top level math students. It was more demanding and would better meet the math instructional needs of these kids than would our regular math 7 program. As would be expected, there were criteria that had to be met by students for them being considered for inclusion into this class. Students who successfully completed Math 7 Lab, which was all of them given the rigorous selection criteria, would then take Algebra, an accelerated 9th grade Regents class, as 8th graders. I, of course, believed that my task was to make sure that only those students who qualified for the class were included in it. We didn’t want to “water down” the intensity or the expectations of the program and we didn’t want to include students who would be in over their heads.
Inevitably, I was contacted by a parent of a student who didn’t meet our established our criteria. In my discussions with the parent, I made it clear what our criteria were for inclusion, pointing out where his son fell short. He countered that his son was a very good math student, received top grades in 6th grade and wasn’t a particularly good test-taker, hence his failure to meet one or two of our entrance criteria. I didn’t disagree at all, as his son appeared to be a very good math student, but the criteria were established for specific reasons and I would not allow his son into the program. Part of my reasoning was that once you did so for a student, you could not say “no” to others. If this was allowed to happen, you would quickly lose the Math Lab and would have a program that didn’t even closely resemble it…and, we would have students in an enriched program who struggled, who were better served being in the regular math program.
The father was not persuaded, believing that his son would be up to the task, and he asked me who he could call to appeal my decision. I told him he should contact our superintendent.
I remember my resulting conversation with the superintendent very clearly. It was short. He asked me my reasoning for denying the boy enrollment in Math Lab. I explained my perspective. While he clearly understood where I was coming from, he asked me whose interests were being served by adhering so tightly to the criteria. I told him we were working to protect the integrity of the program. He wondered why? I countered with including students who may not be able to handle the pace, the content, and the homework expectations. He asked why I was concerned about that when the parent was not, when all other characteristics displayed by the boy in his previous years indicated he was a very good student? I didn’t have a good answer to that.
He said that our job, especially at the junior high level, was to open up doors for students, not shut them. We should be pushing kids to take advantage of realistic opportunities, not discouraging them from reaching. He also said to enroll the boy.
The conversation turned out to be pivotal for me. He was right, not because of his position, because he could have just told me to enroll the boy and not bothered with the discussion. His reasoning, and philosophy for educating adolescents, reflected what we should be providing for students. I took his comments to heart, thought a lot about them, especially given that initially I did not feel that I was being supported. I discussed my developing thoughts with colleagues. Most understood and agreed. The math department did not. They saw my thinking as the beginning of the end for our enriched and accelerated programs.
I quickly came to believe, no, to understand, that our responsibility is to put students into positions where they are challenged appropriately. We should indeed provide students with opportunities to grow, not to limit them to only those programs that we know they can be successful in. Specifically, in math this translated into giving more incoming 7th grade students the opportunity to take the more challenging math course of study.
On my end, I began to broaden our enriched and, thus, accelerated programs. As I wrote, when I began at SJHS there was one Math 7 Lab section; consequently there was only one accelerated 8th grade algebra class. That meant that only about 30 students, or 6-7% of our grade level enrollments, had the opportunity to earn a high school credit in algebra in 8th grade. A similar situation existed in science, with only one section of accelerated Regents level earth science provided in grade 8.
Today, the climate couldn’t be more different. We now enroll 30-33% of our incoming 7th graders in our enriched math 7 classes. Some students realize that they are not quite ready for the work load so there’s expected drop-off, but we have between 25-30% of our 8th graders taking accelerated Regents level algebra. In science, we enroll approximately 25% of 7th graders in our enriched 7th grade science program and have between 20-25% enrolled in Regents earth science in grade 8. We also offer acceleration opportunities in studio art, foreign language and pre-engineering. Our philosophy is one of inclusion not exclusion. And we are a much better school because of it.
And that’s my perspective.