Raising the Bar

Making Honors Classes Universal Benefits All Students

Credit: Courtesy S.B. Unified School District

We’ve seen the concerned social media posts and communication regarding our “Universal Access” initiative — or co-seating as it is commonly called — in Santa Barbara Unified.

And we want to open this critical conversation to everyone.

We have collectively served your families for decades, and we believe that in order to best prepare students for college and careers, we must ensure that all of our courses and programs reflect the diversity of our schools, eliminate real or perceived barriers of access, and provide rigorous preparation for all students.

Plenty of genuine questions from concerned parents and community members need to be answered — and we own that.

But, before we do, let’s be very clear what “Leveling Up” — a clearer and more accurate name for Universal Access — is and what it is not.

It is not lowering rigor or expectations for any student.

It is a commitment that all students will receive grade-level curriculum and be provided support and enrichment to learn at the highest levels.

It is not putting all students together in classes and hoping for the best.

It is planning and supporting our teachers for the different learning needs that inevitably exist in any classroom.

It is not taking honors-only classes away.

It is clearly defining how all students will have the opportunity to demonstrate achievement to earn honors credit.

It is not mandating this change from the District Office.

It is responding to a desire from teachers to change a system that has not guaranteed a quality education for all students to one that will meet the needs of all students.

It is not a curriculum or a program.

It is a more equitable opportunity for all students to reach mastery of the standards.

So why heterogeneously grouped classes? The main driver is to give all students a rigorous, standards-based curriculum that offers all students the opportunity to earn honors. By giving all students a more rigorous experience in grades 7-10, we will see more students prepared to succeed in our advanced courses — Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and Santa Barbara City College dual enrollment — in 11th and 12th grade.

This was initiated at the urging of teachers who had continually expressed frustration around the ways we have historically grouped students and conferred honors credit in these courses, and their desire to “level up” the experience for all.

Yet, while internally supported, we know that all of this inevitably brings questions from our parents and community:

Shouldn’t we group students by ability?

Won’t teachers have to meet a wider array of student abilities that will lead to a more “watered down” experience for more advanced students?

The simple answer is “no.”

Since we eliminated the requirement of prerequisites for honors, 60-70 percent of all students have requested honors, and teachers are already responding to a wide array of student needs. Unfortunately, even with many more students enrolling in honors courses, a persistent opportunity gap remains for our students of color and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

By leveling up the courses that feed into AP, IB, and SBCC dual enrollment, we will ensure that all students have the rigorous preparation needed for success in these classes.

This work has already been in action. Over the past year at the three traditional high schools, students have been heterogeneously grouped in English 9 and English 10 courses.

The student feedback has been encouraging — “challenging,” “opened my eyes to new learning,” and “I feel ready for the next step.”

And that’s why we feel ready to expand the “Leveling Up” initiative to English 7 classes across the four junior high schools, as well as Science 7 and Math 7 at La Colina Junior High.

Participating teachers will continue to refine the curriculum of the respective courses over the summer and into the school year to ensure that all students will receive a curriculum that supports and enriches their learning.

As we continue the thoughtful transition to this new paradigm for the 2022-23 school year, students who have selected honors during registration will retain the honors designation on their transcript.

Continuous training for staff, as well as investing in additional support resources, is paramount, and is a standing commitment at each of our secondary schools. Already, each site has a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) Teacher on Special Assignment, school counselors, and an Assistant Principal of Student Outcomes who monitor student-learning data to ensure that all students are making progress and are supported as needed.

Bottom line — we are committed to providing the opportunity for all to level up.

Want to learn more? Join us for a community forum on May 31 from 6:30-8 p.m. via Zoom.

After nearly a century of combined service to this district and to the community, we will proudly stand this work up, even in the face of criticism.

Our children’s futures deserve it.

The authors are principals of the following schools: Bradley Brock, La Cumbre Junior High; Arielle Curry, Santa Barbara Junior High; Jennifer Foster, La Colina Junior High; Clanci Chiu Merritt, Goleta Valley Junior High; Kip Glazer, San Marcos High School; Elise Simmons, Santa Barbara High School; Bill Woodard, Dos Pueblos High School.


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