NORTHAMPTON – Eleven educators from Northampton High School have written an open letter asking the school committee to apologize to students in the district for a comment made by Ward 4 member Michael Stein expressing concern that a program of Embedded honors creates an atmosphere of “second-class learners alongside first-class learners.
Stein said Monday the letter was “dishonest” and “a pretty transparent attempt to try to create a distraction around other ongoing issues.”
At the February 10 school committee meeting, teacher Rachel Stavely Hale, who is not a signatory to the educators’ letter, briefed the committee on the specifics of the honors program integrated into three integrated math classes, that place honors students in the same classes. as non-specialized students, but with different performance expectations. Honors students also serve as mentors to non-honors or “college prep” students.
Committee members, including Stein, then asked about the program, which was launched by the school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What kind of effect must that have, in a way, second-class learners alongside first-class learners?” Stein said. “And I don’t mean that, like, graded, but there’s an honors request that the rubric be X and that’s more demanding, and there’s a rubric for – I don’t know what we call the track – standard learners who rubric is less demanding in some respects. I don’t know what that does psychologically to students who are in the same space. To me, that seems a little strange, right?”
NHS director Lori Vaillancourt tried to cut Stein off shortly after her comment, but Stein said he still had the floor and ended his statement, suggesting the program committee answer his question. When Vaillancourt was recognized, she pushed back on Stein’s characterization.
“I wrote this question down and I think it’s really important to talk to the math department about it when we go there, but I really feel like in a public meeting like this, we don’t we cannot refer to learners as first and second class learners,” Vaillancourt said. “I have to say publicly that I cannot tolerate this type of portrayal of our learners and our students.”
Stein emailed Vaillancourt, Stavely Hale and two of the educators who would eventually sign the open letter from Northampton High School, which was emailed to the Gazette on February 18, on February 15. Stein wrote that he wanted to “clarify some of my remarks from the other night, as I think they can be easily misinterpreted and taken out of context.
“My concern is that by having both groups in one class, with clearly defined but different expectations (rubrics), we reinforce to groups of students that one group is more capable than the other,” Stein wrote. “You may rightly object to my using the phrase first and second class learners, but can you honestly say that you are communicating anything differently to students by calling them standards and honors ?”
He wrote that he was not on an honor track in high school, and that even though he earned a doctorate, he still “internalized the message of an inferior track”.
“What he told me was that I was not an honors student, that I could not aspire to the standards that they were asked to meet and that I could go to university but that I shouldn’t shoot too high,” Stein wrote. “Yes, a lot has changed since I’ve been in school, but sorting students out this way communicates a lot of things to them that aren’t being said.”
Anisa Schardl, head of the math department and signatory of the open letter, said Stein had a “misunderstanding” about the program and that the students themselves chose to enroll in the college prep track or in the specialized sector.
“With built-in honors, college prep students can see and try out challenge work and honors assessments, and can make the decision to move into honors without disrupting their schedules. Since the integration of honors, we see more and more students accepting difficult materials and choosing to register for honors,” Schardl wrote in an email. “The fact that (Stein) calls our letter a distraction also shows that he doesn’t understand how hurtful his words were.”
The open letter from educators asks that the school board issue a public statement of apology to students and acknowledge that there are no first or second class students.
The educators said that “Stein’s use of the terms ‘first-class learners’ and ‘second-class learners’ is not only inaccurate, but extremely disrespectful and prejudicial to students.”
The letter is signed by Associate Directors Meghan Harrison and Kara Sheridan as well as the chairs of nine departments: Mathematics, World Languages, English, English Language Learning, Special Education, Guidance, Fine and Performing Arts, Technology and science.
Stein provided the Gazette with a report credited to former school committee member Susan Voss and others whose names are redacted. The report contains more than 200 pages of emails and other public documents related to the Integrated Honors Program and begins with a seven-page section titled “Overview.”
The overview section criticizes the choice to offer the integrated specialization program in the three integrated mathematics classes without seeking the approval of the school board. The report includes “proposed action steps” such as ending the two-class curriculum and reinstating “that system-wide curricular issues, such as the elimination of stand-alone honor sections, require the approval” of the committee.
Stein said the letter objecting to his comments was “about it. I think they’re just holding on to straws and trying to fabricate a scandal.
Brian Steele can be contacted at [email protected]