Following last month's school board decision to , how each school is fitting those classes into its curriculum varies widely as the system is putting its faith in principal discretion — upsetting parent advocates who worry all students won't have the same opportunities.
After the Jan. 26 vote added five courses — English 11 Honors, World History and Geography 2 Honors, English 12 Honors, Virginia and U.S. History Honors, and Virginia and U.S. Government Honors — the school system's instructional services department sent out new course descriptions to all student services directors and principals to include in their course catalogs, Assistant Superintendent Peter Noonan said.
Principals choose how to distribute and discuss that information, along with how they are planning to fit the classes into their schools' schedules, Noonan said.
But parent advocates from Fairgrade and Restore Honors, the groups who successfully lobbied the board to reintroduce a three-tiered system in humanities, say "some high schools continue to place obstacles in the paths of students and parents with misinformation, delayed information or a lack of balanced advice" about the changes.
They also say one plan being pursued by some high schools in the county — linking the English and History courses and requiring a student to take both at either the AP or honors level — goes against the intent of the initial decision: giving students more options.
"[It's] totally contrary to the open enrollment policy for high school courses in our county," advocate Kate Van Dyck wrote in an email Friday. "This forced pairing restricts access to other AP courses in math and science, or worse, forces students to choose between being totally stressed by too many college level courses or risk failing a core course at the AP level when successful learning or good grades might be achieved by taking either History or English at a more appropriate level."
It also contradicts the recommendation of guidance counselors, they say, who advise taking no more than two to three AP courses at a time. If a student was planning to take three AP courses and were forced to take APs in two subjects off the bat, for instance, they would only be able to pursue a similar course in one more subject instead of in two.
"Where is the oversight from the Department of Instruction on this situation?" she wrote.
Noonan said while linking courses is not something his department is specifically recommending to schools, it is a practice used often and widely across the county, including during his time as principal of .
"We rely heavily on principals to make decisions," Noonan said. "We at instructional services are into the work of developing and designing curriculum, not designing master schedules."
Schools are taking different approaches to how they engage their communities, Noonan said, and are also working with different registration deadlines. Some simply sent out Keep In Touch e-mail messages while several more have held or are planning to hold meetings.
Earlier this week, more than 100 parents who said linking the courses this way helped reduce stress levels and student workloads.
Hayfield High School parents say they have heard the practice will also be adopted at their school.
At , where administrators plan to give a presentation to parents at Monday's PTSA meeting, students can register for either of the classes or they can opt for both of them, but "we will not link them at this time," Principal Mark Merrell said. West Potomac High School appears to have the same plan.
"We tried this approach off and on about 15 years ago and the program never really gained much traction," Merrell said.
The curriculum for the reinstated courses is already being developed by teachers, Noonan said, and will be completed late this summer. As part of the school board's decision, Noonan's department was also instructed to complete a wider study of the K-12 curriculum and "possibly revise existing policies to more fully integrate its Student Achievement Goals in the FCPS program of studies," the motion said. The study would also include a study of the differences between standard, honors and advanced course offerings and "a discussion of how to ensure increased and equitable student access to advanced academic offerings."
The review was motivated in part by some of the parents who lobbied the school board to reinstate honors courses this winter, some of whom shared stories about the absence of challenges in standard-level courses: no essay assignments in one English course and an assignment to make paper bag puppets in another.
Noonan said there is an important distinction between the content of advanced, honors and standard-level courses — the last of which he called "extraordinarily rich and rigorous" — and how it is delivered.
"Our program of studies for all standard-level courses is all college and career ready, but if it's not implemented [as intended] then we've missed an opportunity," Noonan said.