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New Year, New Honors Courses, Old Debate

Two new online Honors courses reignite a curriculum debate in FCPS.

As Fairfax County high school students head back to class this week, they will have the option of signing up for two new honors classes.

The school system is offering World Studies II Honors and English 11 Language and Composition Honors as online courses. The classes will use an Advanced Placement(AP) curriculum, but students will not have to take the early-May exam.

Principals will have the option of offering the courses in the classroom if enough students are interested.

The online-only offering, part of FCPS Online Campus' catalogue of 51 courses, resurrects two classes that were eliminated over the last six years. 

The school system decided to phase out the upper-level honors courses in favor of the standardized, more popular AP course, said Peter Noonan, assistant superintendent of instructional services.

He said the curriculum of the AP courses were almost identical to that of the honors courses.

"We were offering three different curriculum tiers, and two were nearly identical," Noonan said.

But for Kate Van Dyck, founder of the Restore Honors activist group, the new classes weren’t quite what she had in mind.

"[This] is not the answer to the lack of Honors courses in our schools," said Van Dyck, who is the mother of two West Potomac High School students.

The "bogus honors courses," Van Dyck said, should not use the AP curriculum and should not be offered only online.

For months, and local advocacy group have pressured school administrators to re-instate several upper-level honors classes, arguing that they provide a solid middle option for students who are not challenged enough by standard-level courses but are not ready to take a college-level course.

The activists circulated a petition with over 1,000 signatures asking FCPS to offer five upper-level honors courses.  The school board decided to host but board members and administrators failed to come to a consensus on whether the school system should offer three levels of learning for upperclassmen. And the new courses are likely to cause even more debate among activists, school board candidates and administrators.

"Core academic courses, English, social studies, math and science, should not be offered online," said FairGrade president Megan McLaughlin said.

"They should be offered in our schools, in our classrooms, by real-life teachers,”  said McLaughlin, who is running for the Braddock seat on the school board.

When students take an online course, Noonan said, it is usually because they can fit it more easily into their schedule, or because if frees them to take an extra class through the online campus.

Noonan said that students in online courses are taught by a teacher online, but do more work independently than students in traditional courses. The students also have face-to-face meetings in the beginning of the course, and at the midterm and final exams. 

To ease community members' concerns, the school system also gave West Potomac teachers more training this summer on how to serve students with varying skill sets in one classroom.

But McLaughlin said the new classes are not an adequate solution.

"This is a misrepresentation of what the community asked for," said McLaughlin.

FCPS' Noonan said parents and teachers were consulted before the school system decided to offer the new courses--a process which led to the last-minute announcement before school started.

"A month ago, we were going to wait a year," said Noonan. "But we wanted an immediate response. We listened very carefully to the community."

Naomi Nix contributed to this report.

Michele Nellenbach September 11, 2011 at 12:37 PM
The SB needs to demand that Honors classes be restored to our high schools. It is shameful that it took the SB this long to hold a public work session on the Superintendent's plan.
Barry Meuse September 12, 2011 at 06:49 PM
Dr. Noonan is wrong by twice. First, AP is NOT Honors and 2nd, there was no decision to wait a year to re-institute Honors throughout the County - perhaps those existed in in his head. Those are false statements. And, throwing this "AP-Lite' program together at the last minute and dumping it on the schools is to doom it to failure. This is another thoughtless act by an irresponsible school administration.
Megan McLaughlin September 16, 2011 at 04:06 AM
It's deeply troubling that FCPS' public remarks are so misleading, especially on an issue as important as curriculum and honors courses. Our students and teachers and taxpayers deserve better leadership.

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