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Unleveled English course will expand to a third of ninth graders at BHS next year

The outside of Brookline High School in May 2024. Photo by Artemisia Luk
June 7, 2024

Brookline High School will significantly expand its pilot of an unleveled ninth grade English course, which was the subject of a contentious School Committee debate this past spring.

The pilot course was introduced as part of a broader unleveling initiative by BHS, titled “Reimagining Ninth Grade,” which was slated to begin in the 2024-25 school year with all ninth grade students taking the same, unleveled English course. After an outcry from parents, the change was voted down by the School Committee in March, and the unleveled English course next year will continue to be one of three options instead of the only option for ninth graders.

In the 2023 to 2024 school year, 112 students took the heterogenous English course, “Responding to Literature Humanities,” which was split into five sections, according to Gabe McCormick, the senior director of teaching and learning at the high school. Starting next fall, 197 students, divided into 10 sections and making up around a third of ninth graders, have chosen to take the course.

The course is designed based on the experience of local educators and students, successful programs in schools across the country and research done by experts, McCormick said.

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McCormick said the pilot course allows students to adjust to BHS at their own pace, noting the difficulty many students face in joining a more than 500-person graduating class after coming from much smaller class sizes in eighth grade.

“There are many students who started out choosing some of the medium or easier books, and as the year progressed they chose more and more challenging books,” McCormick said. “That choice and flexibility for students as they enter Brookline High is a key part and that’s a new thing that this course provides.”

The pilot aims to address racial inequities and make higher-level classes more widely accessible at BHS, where Black and Hispanic students are more often placed in lower-level English classes, according to data the district shared with Brookline.News.

Black and Hispanic students made up more than 40 percent of standard and College Prep English courses and about 10 percent of Honors English courses in the 2023 to 2024 school year — and students who start in lower-level classes are more likely to stay in lower-level classes throughout their high school career, McCormick told Brookline.News in February.

‘I’m not going to send her to Brookline High if it’s unleveled’

Kara Weiss, who lives in Brookline and attended Brookline schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, began sending her daughter to private school during the pandemic, she said. She expressed concern about unleveling at BHS, both as a parent and alumnus

“When my daughter finishes at Park School in 8th grade, I’m going to have a choice of sending her to a private high school or Brookline High. I would love to send her to Brookline High, but I’m not going to send her to Brookline High if it’s unleveled,” Weiss said.

In “Responding to Literature Humanities,” students read eight total texts — four of which are the same, and four of which are leveled, according to Sarah Talmadge Nardi, one of the teachers of the heterogenous course. Students also participate in seminar-style discussions, complete writing assignments, and participate in “curriculum-related events” like interactive tours or performances, Nardi said.

Nardi, who has taught homogenous and heterogenous courses at four schools including BHS, said teaching a heterogenous course takes more time for educators to design, but is more effective in presenting students with challenges in areas where they excel, and support in areas they are less secure.

Some parents, including Weiss, worry that differentiation detracts from the rigor of the course, particularly in class discussion.

“If you’re providing two texts to draw from at minimum you’re saying that you cannot have a conversation about the actual texts that you’re reading,” Weiss said.

But students seem to enjoy having some choice in what they read, Nardi said.

“They like that they are not locked into one level for the entire year,” she said. “Many students mentioned how hard it is to transition from 8th grade to 9th grade (especially around homework and time management) and they felt the heterogeneous model helped them make that bridge.”

While the high school says the program has had relative success — students in the unleveled course have GPAs on track with their peers in other classes, and there is no evidence of learning loss, according to McCormick — many parents expressed concerns at a School Committee meeting in February regarding the expansion of the pilot.

Weiss said she and her family returned to Brookline from Utah after having her daughter, and now she feels discouraged by proposed changes to PSB.

“We moved back [from Utah] for the schools,” Weiss said. “I am so confused and sad to see that there has been an effort to reduce and eliminate exactly the qualities that make Brookline education really wonderful and rigorous for everybody.”

Other parents, including BHS parent and alumnus Shlomit Azgad-Tromer, worry that the unleveled pilot course will lead to more unleveling at BHS.

“We don’t have a problem with trying out new things as long as they are optional and people can look into them and decide if they’re interested in participating in an experiment,” Azgad-Tromer said.

McCormick said there is no plan to remove levels in 10th through 12th grade courses, and while schools have “discussed possibilities for heterogeneous science and math courses in ninth grade,” there is no plan to do so at this time.

The unleveled course has not caused learning loss, McCormick said, and offers options that may be even more challenging than those offered in honors — for example, students in the unleveled course can choose to read “Pachinko,” a complex, nearly 500-page epic about a Korean family’s immigration to Japan.

“There’s certainly plenty of challenges available to [students],” McCormick said. “One of the key benefits we see is that students can ramp up or dial back the intensity given their own experience or interest or what else is going on in their life.”

Azgad-Tromer argued that, if expanded to be the only English course offered for ninth graders, an unleveled course would actually take away students’ choice by restricting them to one class.

“[BHS] ideology is in sharp conflict with the idea of diversity of ideology,” Azgad-Tromer said. “These are core tenets of American values. When you hear the head of the English department speaking, what he’s trying to promote is really socialism.”

The School Committee’s role

School Committee members, in rejecting the broader changes earlier this year, called on BHS to provide more data on outcomes of the unleveled course, including test scores and student testimonies — data BHS says it has and will continue to collect.

To continue assessing the effectiveness of the unleveled course, the district will survey students and educators, and track test scores — particularly on midterm, final, and statewide exams that students in all classes take, McCormick said.

The School Committee has also discussed adding an “earned honors” component to the pilot, which would allow students who consistently chose more difficult works of literature and complete more challenging assignments to be recognized for their work.

Steven Ehrenberg, a member of the School Committee and its curriculum subcommittee, said he has contacted several nearby school districts with similar courses to understand the benefits and results, he said.

He pointed to a pilot he studied in Arlington, which tracked honors level participation and future enrollment in honors; grades and achievement, including on standardized tests; and “rigorous expectations,” which measures learning loss and tracks the honors students’ perception of course difficulty.

“So many Brookline families are frightened that a course like this will lead to reduced opportunities for their kids,” Ehrenberg said. “It didn’t happen in my observation, and even if it does happen, [unleveling] might be worth doing. That’s a discussion we should be willing to have.”