The Santa Barbara Unified School District plans to implement universal access within the next school year, which will combine high school English 9-10, and junior high English 7-8, honors and college prep courses, to allow all students an opportunity to receive honors credit.
Universal access, or “leveling up” to universal access, is the latest shift in education meant to bridge the achievement gap, through providing opportunities for students who otherwise would not be taking honors classes to have access to honors material and the opportunity to receive honors credits.
The basic format of universal access is that 9th- and 10th-grade English courses be taught to Honors and College Prep students simultaneously, without segregating the groups into different classes. In these classes, students are given a mix of lessons for the entire class, and students can take assignments of varying levels depending on their understanding.
Bill Woodard, principal of Dos Pueblos High School, said these choices are often framed as “mild, medium, or spicy” assignments. “It’s less about more work, and more about more challenging work,” Woodard said.
By the 2023-24 school year, a high school student will not register for English courses as Honors or College prep, but instead, all students will be able to receive an honors credit, through consistently showing a proficiency above grade level and earning a C- or higher in the class. Traditionally, students would self-identify as honors or college prep when registering for English courses before the year begins. Junior high school students will also not register as an Honors or College prep student for English but will continue to register as Honors or College prep for math, social studies, and science. Any student in a college prep course will still receive access to an honors credit.
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Woodard described English 9 and 10 as foundational courses that build into advanced courses, such as advanced placement, international baccalaureate, or dual enrollment courses. Terms like “universal access” and “leveling up” have been used to reframe or explain what is a shift in education styles, he said, which is more focused on helping all students at a certain grade level to learn, while providing each an opportunity to be challenged at their own pace.
“Our students are empowered to decide what support and extensions they need, and when they need them,” said Mercy Rudolph, an English teacher at Dos Pueblos High School, at a universal access panel discussion for the district on May 31. “They gain self-awareness, self-confidence, and agency about their learning as a result.”
In data provided by the district, in 2020 only 51 percent of the Hispanic/Latino high school population of the district was registered in an honors course. In junior high schools, only 52 percent of Hispanic/Latino students were registered in honors. This led to a drastic underrepresentation of Latine students in honors or advanced courses, Woodard said.
Another catalyst was the success of the English 9 with an emphasis on Ethnic Studies course, launched in 2021, a co-seating course that did not provide separate lessons for Honors or College prep students. Allison Quijano, the secondary ELA support specialist for the district, said the student and teacher experience from the Ethnic Studies courses was very positive, and there was a noticeable increase in students’ self-confidence.
Incoming student board member Kavya Suresh, who will be a junior at San Marcos this upcoming school year, said she used to feel like an imposter in her English courses, even after she was deemed proficient. Allowing all students access to higher level coursework not only leads to success in higher education, Suresh said, but also encourages students to pursue careers and not be discouraged by learning.