WEST ORANGE, NJ — Several parents are speaking out against the way the honors program is organized at Edison Central Six School, arguing that grouping all the honors students together is stigmatizing to those not involved with the program.
The root of the issue is Edison’s three-team approach to scheduling, in which students attend classes only with those in their own group — either the gray team, the yellow team or the green team. The system is intended to provide the same educational experience to all students while making things easier for the teachers, who work with the same students on their team and can thus better coordinate assignments so that no child is overwhelmed with work. But all the honors students are on the gray team, which parents say sends the message that the team is on a higher level than everyone else, despite the fact that not every gray team member is an honors student.
“It’s created this classicism-type mentality,” Edison parent Marcia Dukes told the West Orange Chronicle in a Jan. 27 phone interview.
Dukes said that mentality is hurting her son, Alston, who is not part of the honors program. She said Alston’s self-esteem is being damaged since he is starting to internalize the notion that he is not as intelligent as he thought because he is on the green team. And though she has told him not being in the honors program does not mean he will fail to get into college or obtain a good job, she said it is hard to combat the narrative he is receiving at school.
Alston himself told the Chronicle that many students talk about being smarter than others. Often they will make comments such as “You wouldn’t know, you’re on the green team,” he said. The sixth-grader also mentioned subtle messages reinforcing the gray team’s perceived superiority. He said the gray team eats lunch first, for instance, and gray team classrooms are on the top floor of the school building while green team classrooms are in the basement.
On top of that, Dukes said she has noticed there appears to be a different workload for students depending on their teams. She said her son gets a lot of homework, but the gray team seems to do more in-school projects instead. At the same time, she said, Alston is not getting the same rigorous writing education her daughter received when she attended Edison six years ago, before the three-team system was in place.
“I was looking to see growth with my son by now,” Dukes said. “With my daughter, I could see it. I could see the writing process. I could see how she grew as a writer.”
Another parent, who asked to remain anonymous told the Chronicle she also has noticed a difference between the types of assignments her daughter, a non-honors student, receives compared to the work fellow non-honors students from other teams get. She said her daughter does more worksheets, as opposed to non-honors students on other teams who do long writing assignments; this disturbs her because middle school is supposed to be when students really learn to write, she said.
The parent also said she wishes tests were not part of the admittance process for the honors program, saying they are unfair to good students who are not exemplary test-takers. She said she would prefer to see the West Orange School District create guidelines similar to the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s access and equity policy, which allows parents to request that their children be placed into high-level courses. That way, she said, children passionate about a particular subject can study it more in-depth, rather than be forced to join a regular class.
That being said, the SOMSD’s access and equity policy is not without its travails. Some parents in that school district have complained that, once a student is admitted into a higher level course, it is nearly impossible for the student to drop back to a lower class if overwhelmed.
In fact, the parent said she would not mind if the honors program was eliminated completely at the sixth-grade level, for all the grief it causes. She said her daughter was very upset after not making it into honors and, as a result, now puts a lot of pressure onto herself to get in next year. And sixth-graders should not have that type of chip on their shoulder, she said.
“These are still kids, and they’re still developing their academic skills,” the parent said in a Jan. 30 phone interview. “This is really creating a track for kids that now they won’t be able to get off of all the way through high school.”
Robin Isserles, co-founder of the West Orange Cares About Schools parent group, said she would also be in favor of eliminating the honors program at the sixth-grade level due to the hurtful impact it can have on students so young. Isserles said sixth-graders are not as emotionally mature as seventh- or eighth-graders, so rejecting them from a program and then placing them in a group perceived as inferior could do lasting harm to their self-esteem.
“It’s a bad cultural environment for learning and an unnecessary one, certainly at that age,” Isserles told the Chronicle in a Jan. 28 phone interview.
The WOAC co-founder said her own son’s confidence was shaken after he did not get into honors math, though his sister at Roosevelt Middle School was not too bothered that she did not get into every honors class she wanted. That goes to show what a difference a year or two can make, she said.
Isserles also strongly disagrees with the use of testing as an entrance criterion for honors, which is an opinion she voiced while on the planning committee for the sixth-grade program. She said test questions can have inherent cultural biases in the way they are worded or in the references they use, making them unfair for certain students. For instance, she said her husband once administered a standardized test containing a question on fast food prices, which was difficult for many of his students to answer since many were South Asian vegetarians.
Additionally, Isserles questioned the makeup of the honors program at Edison as well as Roosevelt and Liberty middle schools. According to Isserles, the students in her daughter’s honors language arts and math classes appeared to be mostly white.
But Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky vehemently denied that an ethnic gap exists in the honors program, telling the Chronicle the numbers from each grade level demonstrate this. According to Rutzky, there are currently 67.8 percent minority students and 32.2 percent white students involved with honors in the sixth grade; 67.5 percent minority students and 32.5 percent white students in the seventh grade; and 52.7 percent minority students and 47.3 percent white students in the eighth grade.
“Clearly, there’s very, very good equality across (all grades),” Rutzky said in a Feb. 3 phone interview. He added that the district does not have socioeconomic statistics, but that every student is held to high expectations in all classes regardless of their background.
Rutzky also denied that the educational experience was different for students in any of the three Edison teams, saying that the expectation level and the curriculum scope and sequence were the same for the gray, yellow and green teams. If parents feel there is a problem, he urges them to consult with their children’s teachers or administrators. He said the school’s staff is committed to doing what is best for all students.
“The commitment to excellent instruction at Edison is absolutely consistent for all classes and students regardless of the course title or the team,” Rutzky said. “We want every child to be challenged at the highest level every day.”
The superintendent acknowledged that children might have more homework than in previous years, but that is due to the fact that science and social studies are now offered each day. He also pointed out that some students simply take longer than others to complete their homework, which may give the impression that they have more to do.
As for honors, Rutzky said he adamantly disagrees with the idea of shutting down the sixth-grade program, especially since elementary students are already being exposed to higher-level critical thinking through the gifted and talented program. And he said the honors admittance process is fair because it involves a writing sample and teacher recommendation in addition to the test. Though each criterion has a different weight depending on the subject, the superintendent said students have a better chance of being accepted with more ways to demonstrate their skills.
If they do not get in, Rutzky said teachers can always recommend that a student be added to an honors class if they feel a child would benefit from such a move. He said at least 10 students at Edison were put into honors after the school year started, due to teacher recommendations.
Above all, Rutzky stressed that it was never the three-team system’s intention to make any child feel inferior. And while the superintendent said he has not seen any indication that the system is stigmatizing students, he added that there will be changes next year. He said Principal Xavier Fitzgerald has designed a schedule that allows honors students to be spread across all three teams. This was not necessarily to address this issue though — Rutzky said Fitzgerald had devised the plan months ago, after talking with stakeholders about how to improve the schedule.
And there may be other changes to the honors program, as well. Rutzky said the honors committee is starting its annual process of reviewing all aspects of the program to determine what needs to be revised. He said the committee will benefit from a lot of different perspectives in making those decisions, including honors teachers, non-honors teachers, special education teachers, fifth-grade teachers, principals and parents.
Board of Education President Sandra Mordecai did not respond to request for comment before press time Feb. 7. Fitzgerald told the Chronicle that Rutzky would speak on his behalf.