Santa Rosa parents question equitability as district moves to mixed-level science classes

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Megan Jones’ mother is a mathematician, while her father is an engineer. So STEM courses matter to the Santa Rosa High School senior, who as a ninth-grader took a sophomore-level honors biology class.

She said the class helped her get ahead and prepared her for more advanced classes, including honors chemistry and Advanced Placement physics.

“If students don’t have honors classes to take, they’re going to have no motivation to learn and excel beyond it,” said Jones, who wants to study mechanical engineering in college next year.

But the honors biology class won’t be offered to freshmen much longer as the Santa Rosa school district prepares to roll out new science courses, Living Earth and Earth Science.

Beginning in the fall, ninth-graders will have to take one of the two classes, approved last week by the school board. The classes are aimed at leveling the playing field, bringing students of different learning abilities into the same science classes. However, many parents, educators, students and STEM professionals are raising questions about equitability, especially as education officials look to close the achievement gap.

They packed Wednesday’s school board meeting, expressing concern over a lack of an honors-level science course for future ninth graders. Within two years, the honors biology class no longer will be an option for them.

“I understand it’s being done for the sake of equity, but it’s unrealistic to expect all students to learn at the same pace and at the same level,” Jones, 17, told the board.

Jenni Klose, board president, said it’s a “really complicated issue” that warranted further discussion.

“I get real sensitive about any efforts that are going to create, sort of, education ‘othering’ and tracking if different levels are not really needed,” she said.

The two new freshman science classes were created by Santa Rosa teachers, who have been training and developing curriculum to meet the state’s science standards for over four years, district officials say.

In 2013, the California Department of Education adopted Next Generation Science Standards, alongside dozens of other states. The standards move kindergarten- to 12th-grade science classes from knowledge-based learning to a more holistic, inquiry-based approach that emphasizes in-depth thinking, according to education officials. The state last updated its science standards in 1998.

“Our goal is to provide learning opportunities that ensure all students have an equal chance for success,” said Rani Goyal, the district’s director of teaching and learning.

The district’s seventh- through 12th-grade science steering committee voted in November for freshman science courses to be heterogeneous, or diverse in learning levels.

However, California Department of Education Information Officer Scott Roark said heterogeneous courses are not a state requirement, and the decision to create and offer an honors science course is a local decision.

“It is possible for school districts to develop honors science courses for ninth grade — or any grade — that adhere to the Next Generation Science Standards,” Roark said.

The Santa Rosa district is developing other science courses that meet the standards, including Life Science for sophomores and Chemistry in the Earth for juniors — both of which will be offered at a college preparatory and honors levels.

So why not offer an honors-level science course for freshmen?

It’s a question posed by the founding principal of Maria Carrillo High School, Pam Devlin, who worked for the district for 31 years and is also a former assistant superintendent of curriculum instruction for seventh- through 12th grade.

“We’re giving them homogeneous settings in 10th, 11th and 12th grade. Why eliminate it in ninth grade?” asked Devlin, who has two grandchildren in the district and now works at the North Coast School of Education.

Although science department chairs from six high schools and three middle schools voted at the November steering committee meeting to have heterogeneous science classes, two high schools and one middle school did want an honors option for freshmen, Goyal said.

The discussion circled around students learning from one another in a mixed ability classroom, and the fact that these are foundational courses, Goyal said.

“Those department chairs had talked to their departments,” Goyal said.

Superintendent Diann Kitamura said there’s a misperception that the district office did not listen to concerns.

“Know it was not unanimous, but it was a majority of teachers wanting to do heterogeneous grouping in the ninth grade,” Kitamura said. “I think that we’ve made it clear that we are very open and willing to look at, once we implement these ninth grade courses, how it is going, what’s happening.”

Former Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Robin Swinth, who has an eighth-grader at Rincon Valley Middle School and a freshman at Maria Carrillo High School, started a petition for an honors-level science course for freshman. At least 215 people had signed it.

“Every student should have the opportunity to push their education as far forward as they want, that’s equity,” Swinth said.

Trustees unanimously voted to approve the two freshman science courses, with Ed Sheffield and Evelyn Anderson expressing their support for teachers to create an honors option moving forward.

“I would love for this district to embrace a growth mindset that says that we are going to provide for every student to learn to their potential, and that means giving them coursework that they want and need,” Anderson said. “For some students, it really is almost an emotional need to get rigorous work.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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