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High school moves forward with ninth grade course changes amid parent concerns

The new high school building at 22 Tappan Street, used mainly for ninth grade. Photo by Sam Mintz
February 6, 2024  Updated February 9, 2024 at 10:14 a.m.

Update: The high school’s plan for an unleveled English course for ninth-grade is now on pause following Thursday’s School Committee meeting. For more, click here to read our latest story. 

A multi-year effort to redesign Brookline High School’s ninth grade curriculum will move forward next year, despite opposition from some parents who fear that the changes will reduce the rigor of some of the district’s courses.

The ninth grade English course, which has previously been offered in two levels, honors and standard, will transition to a single unleveled course next year, according to next year’s course catalog. 

The shift builds on a previous change to the ninth grade social studies course, which has been fully unleveled since 2019. The district is also planning to redesign its first year physics and math courses, though a decision has not yet been made about whether to de-level them, according to Gabe McCormick, the senior director of teaching and learning for the high school.

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The curriculum changes are an attempt to address issues with the course recommendation system, which the district believes contributes to Black, Hispanic and special needs students being over-represented in standard level classes.

“The intent is that by giving kids essentially a fresh start, we can hopefully open up all the opportunities at Brookline High,” said McCormick.

A group of parents are organizing in opposition to the changes, arguing that de-leveling ninth grade courses may exacerbate inequality, rather than lessen it, by leading affluent parents concerned about academic rigor to send their children to private school or obtain outside tutoring.

“It’s very dangerous because it might not have the desired outcome,” said Nadia Gurvich, whose son is an eighth grader at Runkle School. “I feel that this is anti-equity.”

Gurvich is a member of a recently launched group of more than 50 parents who have been discussing their worries about the curriculum changes in a Slack channel.

Reimagining ninth grade

Brookline prides itself on its K-8 model, but the magnitude of the transition from elementary to high school has historically posed a challenge for some students.

In 2022, the district opened a new building at 22 Tappan St., where most ninth grade courses are now taught. Creating a de-facto first year campus was seen as an important step toward reimagining the ninth grade experience, a process that has also involved restructuring the high school dean’s office and advisory program, according to McCormick.

Now the district is addressing its courses.

Prior to 2019, almost all ninth grade core courses were offered in college prep/standard and honors levels, while math and some language courses were offered in an advanced level, as well. Placing students in those courses involved recommendations from eighth grade teachers.

McCormick said that those teachers are often not positioned to make informed recommendations because they don’t teach at the high school and are therefore less familiar with the differences between course levels.

Data shared with Brookline.News by the district also shows Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented by at least seven and eight percentage points, respectively, in ninth grade standard-level math, science, and English courses this year.

Brookline High School 2023-24 ninth grade courses by race/ethnicity

Because students who start in the lowest level tend to stay there throughout high school, these disparities persist, McCormick said.

In 2019, motivated to fix these issues, the social studies department launched an unleveled project-based course that all ninth graders take.

This year, the English department followed suit, piloting a five-section unleveled course, which will be expanded to all ninth graders next year.

The district will spend next year researching how to redesign ninth grade math and physics courses. While the goal will be to stop dividing students into different classes by level, it is possible the departments will transition to a model where students within a given class can select different levels, McCormick said.

A decline in rigor?

The group of parents opposed to the changes argue that the prospect of de-leveling ninth grade courses, particularly in math and science, is misguided.

“It’s not good for the kids and it’s not good for the teachers to not have different levels because you have kids who have a problem meeting the minimum standards and then you have others who are bored and they want to do more,” said Kornelia Polyak, whose daughter attends eighth grade at Runkle.

Polyak has sent her daughter to a popular private math program called the Russian School of Mathematics since kindergarten and recently hired a science tutor. She said that she will continue seeking outside enrichment if the high school courses are not challenging enough for her daughter.

“I want to make sure she’s competitive for higher education,” Polyak said. “Most parents who can afford it will just go to private school, and then that’s going to be bad for the district.”

District administrators and teachers stress that unleveled or mixed courses are no less rigorous than leveled courses.

“I think one of the fears — and it’s a good fear — is that you just put everyone in the room and you teach to the middle,” McCormick said. “That is not the goal. I want to be explicit about that.”

The ninth grade English and social studies courses offer a high degree of choice in assignment difficulty, according to the curriculum coordinators in those departments. In social studies, many reading assignments are offered to students at three levels. In English, of the two books students read each quarter, one is assigned to all students while the other is selected individually from a range of options.

“We wanted to provide options that actually went above what was historically the honors level,” said Talmadge Nardi, an English teacher who taught three of this year’s unleveled sections. She highlighted books like “Pachinko” and “The House of the Spirit,” which are typically read junior or senior year or in college, but have been added to the ninth grade course.

Social studies teacher Stephanie McAllister Poon, who helped design the current ninth grade course in her department, said the shift has been successful.

“I think the benefits for us have been tremendous,” she said. “My classes are in so many ways unrecognizable to the earlier model. There’s just a level of seriousness of purpose and dedication to work across the board that just didn’t exist.”

Despite the change, data provided by the district shows racial disparities persist in tenth grade social studies courses. This year, Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented by 11 and 12 percentage points, respectively, in the tenth grade standard level.

Brookline High School 2023-24 tenth grade social studies courses by race/ethnicity

As district administrators prepare to redesign the math and science courses next year, they acknowledge the process may pose challenges that did not arise in the humanities.

“Part of the mission of humanities is getting people with different ideas talking about their ideas,” McCormick said. “We have teachers who are interested in a mixed classroom and what that brings to math and science, but math itself doesn’t always ask for that in the same way that an English class might.”

The district may also have to create its science course from scratch.

“We have not been able to find a school that has done unleveled physics in ninth grade,” McCormick said. “And so we have a really fair concern of: Might we be the first in the country?”