Principal keeps student in AP class she rejected
Sherry Arritt's daughter told her counselors, English teachers and the principal at Barren County High School in Kentucky that she did not want to take Advanced Placement English Literature. She was a 4.0 student. She wanted to study nursing in college. She already had AP French on her schedule. AP English was too much. She wanted the less demanding honors English course.
When the school refused to change her schedule, her parents repeated that seemingly reasonable decision to her principal, Keith Hale, and the district superintendent, Jerry Ralston. Both men refused to let her drop AP. They had decided that too many students were taking courses that were too easy for them, missing a chance to challenge themselves and prepare for college.
"I really believe if we had continued to let families decide" to put children in courses beneathe their abilities "we would still have the 30-plus ACT [the equivalent of 2000-plus on the SAT] student sitting in Basic English," Hale said.
The Arritt parents were so upset by this that they transferred their daughter to another school for her senior year. What happened to them dramatizes an issue of growing importance when many educators are doing everything they can to prepare students for higher education, even if some of the students and their families think they go too far.
I can hear some of you mumbling: What is Mathews doing? His nutty campaign for AP and International Baccalaureate and his love of anything to which the word rigor can be attached is the reason why educators push this stuff too hard. Is he finally confessing his sins of overdoing challenging courses?
Nope. I still think that American high schools are far more likely to give students too little rather than too much work. In many subject areas, only half or less of students ready for AP according to their PSAT scores ever take those courses. What the Arritt family encountered at Barren County High is very rare--the first such incident I have encountered. What I hope is that by telling their story I will give well-intentioned educators a chance to reflect on the fact that it is possible pile on too much of a good thing, and that they should avoid doing that.
Here is Sherry Arritt's account of what happened during the 2007-2008 school year:
"During our daughter's junior year she was badgered by counselors and members of the English department to sign up for AP English. (I'm sure it was done because they were being pressured by their boss.) When it got to the point she couldn't walk to class without a mini-conference with one of these people, I went to the guidance counselors and asked for them to please respect our family's choices and leave her alone. I told them she wanted Honors English not AP English for her Senior Year 2008-2009. She was a 4.0 Honor student, in the Gifted & Talented program and ranked very close to the top of her class. Although she made excellent grades in Honors English, the AP English class would not contribute to her pursuit of a BS degree in Nursing. As any parent knows, who has a child enrolled in the AP program, the extra work that is given AP students can be quite overwhelming and leaves no time for any extracurricular activities.
"When the schedules were handed out-- there it was in black and white: AP English! At first she was told schedule changes would not be allowed. Then, she was told that a meeting with the principal, Mr. Hale, was the only way to get it changed. (Her other classes included Accounting, Visual Arts, AP French and PE.)
"We (my husband, my daughter and I) made an appointment with Mr. Hale. We explained our reasoning for changing her schedule, but it fell on deaf ears. Mr. Hale made a ludicrous argument saying 'if she can't do the work...we'll get her help.' We kept telling him 'she is capable, but, she wants dual credit science courses instead.' He also insisted on taking rabbit trails about how they gave her the PE class she wanted. Whoopee! (The PE class was one she asked for). The meeting was without a doubt a total waste of our time. Mr. Hale reared back in his chair. His hands placed with fingers interlocked behind his head and told us, 'She has been placed' and it wasn't going to change unless we got a doctor's Note. A doctor's note?
"We left the meeting with nothing accomplished for our daughter. When we called the superintendent, Dr. Ralston, he was unavailable and we were told he would get back to us on Monday. It was Thursday next before he returned our call, and it was during our phone conversation Dr. Ralston told us that he had to back up Mr. Hale's decision, because the teachers and administrators knew what was best for our daughter. The final decision about what classes students would be enrolled in, would be Barren's to make. Our role as the parent of our child was being usurped by the Barren County school system. I informed Dr. Ralston that we are her parents, we are college graduates, we have taught in the classroom and that we have our child's best interest at heart, including the knowledge of her chosen career path and the class schedule Barren had selected for our daughter was in no way reflective of her aptitude or desires.
"In the end, we refused to get a doctor's note stating for the record that our daughter had some sort of stress-mental disorder concerning AP English. How would that look to her future employer? REALLY! Also, what part of character education covers telling lies to get your way?
"We chose instead to move our daughter to Glasgow High School. She was welcomed with open arms. The folks at GHS worked with us, making recommendations, but allowing us the final choice. Phone calls were made, and paperwork was expedited. It was the BEST year she ever had in high school! Not only did she get ALL the classes she wanted (including Honors English--NOT AP ENGLISH), she got the dual credit science courses she needed. She graduated with all honors including 21 hours of college credit."
When I shared the Arritts' story with Ralston, he said he had listened to them and had checked with Hale to see if he was following district policy, and had the approval of the district director of instruction. Getting yes answers to both questions, he backed up his principal.
"To my recollection for the three plus years this process has been in place, Ms. Arritt is the only parent to bring a grievance directly to me," Ralston said. "I understand that it is sometimes a long and difficult road when we literally begin to demand excellence and I would never say we haven’t made a misstep along the way. I can say that I fully support expecting the most of all of our students, especially the best and brightest, each and every day."
Hale sent a long letter in response:
"At Barren County High School we do place students in classes. This decision came about after I walked into a general English class and once again saw a student who had, as a junior, scored above 30 in reading on the ACT. I assume you are familiar with the Charles Osgood poem 'Pretty Good'. That poem has for years described our school. We knew we had a pretty good school at the time, with pretty good students but if we were going to have a great school with great students we had to make some bold changes. Our School Based Council made the decision to start placing students in math and English classes based on ability, performance, and teacher recommendation (any student could move up but couldn’t move down). To monitor and make sure students had support structures in place to ensure success we also requested and was granted by our local board of education to hire two curriculum specialists, one in English and one in math to assist students where needed.
"The issues we were having at that time with students and parents about schedules were centered on students wanting an easy schedule their senior year. One parent went as far as to say that her child had worked hard every year and deserved an easy schedule his last year. With those types of conversations we made little adjustments to the schedule and instead ensured parents that our specialist would work with their child individually and we would meet any need they would have. The program was and continues to be a huge success. And now in just four years the conversations with students and parents about scheduling have done a 360. For example just a few weeks ago a student and parent came in and talked about the child wanting to go into engineering in college and really wanting to take AP Calculus and AP Statistics but hadn’t had Computer Aided Drafting (CAD). He had originally been placed in AP Literature but really didn’t want the class at the expense of the CAD class. The academic integrity of his schedule was evident, as was his previous three years of classes. Our recommendation to him was to take AP Calculus and AP Statistics and since he’s going into engineering, we would work in the CAD and drop the AP Literature. (He did have AP Language). That same week a young lady who hopes to go pre-med had a similar request. She wanted AP Statistics and physics as opposed to AP Literature. That request was granted. The student whose parent felt he deserved an easier senior year and could not provide an academic rationale has not been granted a waiver.
"We feel we are very student centered and we work with each and every child to ensure they reach their fullest potential. We are proud of our AP and Dual Credit programs at Barren County High School and try to promote each to the best of our ability. I would never be so arrogant as to say we haven’t made mistakes. I sincerely hope that none are ever made that are detrimental to our students. I am very glad that Ms. Arritt’s daughter ended up with what she considers the best school year ever. We are fortunate to be in an area where students actually have a possible choice of three high schools to attend.
"For every one student who has been disgruntled by this process I feel certain I could produce many more that come to us after their first year in college saying 'Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you made me do!'
I gave both sides more space than I usually do because the case is so unusual, and the details so important. I like the system Barren County installed, but I think the Arritts justified their argument for their child. She had a challenging program. It didn't make sense to me for the school to battle over that one course.
Most high school students in this country who go to college never take even one college-level course in high school. Coaxing each of them into one AP, IB or local college course would be enough for me. I am glad Hale and Ralston have set high standards. But next time a family like the Arritts visits them, I hope they offer a little more slack.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| April 9, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Barren County High School, Jerry Ralston, Keith Hale, Sherry Arritt, student changes schools to avoid AP course, student forced to take AP course
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