School board member’s remark riles NHS educators

  • Northampton High School GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • SCREENSHOT/NORTHAMPTON OPEN MEDIA SCREENSHOT/NORTHAMPTON OPEN MEDIA

Staff Writer
Published: 2/21/2022 5:34:41 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Eleven educators at Northampton High School have written an open letter asking the School Committee to apologize to the district’s students for a comment made by member Michael Stein of Ward 4 expressing concern that an embedded honors program creates an atmosphere of “second-class learners alongside first-class learners.”

Stein on Monday said the letter is “disingenuous” and “a pretty transparent attempt to try to create a distraction around some other issues that are going on.”

At the Feb. 10 School Committee meeting, teacher Rachel Stavely Hale, who is not a signatory of the educators’ letter, told the committee about the specifics of the embedded honors program in three integrated mathematics classes, which place honors students in the same classes as non-honors students but with different performance expectations. The honors students also serve as mentors to non-honors, or “college prep,” students.

Committee members, including Stein, then asked questions about the program, which was started by the school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What sort of effect does it have to have, sort of, second-class learners alongside first-class learners?” Stein said. “And I don’t mean that, like, ranked, but there’s a demand at the honors that the rubric is X and it’s more demanding, and there’s a rubric for — I don’t know what we call the track — standard learners that the rubric is less demanding in some ways. I don’t know what that does psychologically to students that are in the same space. To me that seems a bit odd, right?”

NHS Principal Lori Vaillancourt attempted to interrupt Stein shortly after his comment, but Stein said that he still had the floor and finished his statement, suggesting that the curriculum committee address his question. When Vaillancourt was recognized, she pushed back against Stein’s characterization.

“I wrote that question down and I think it’s really important to raise with the math department when we go there, but I really feel like, in a public meeting like this, we cannot refer to learners as first- and second-class learners,” Vaillancourt said. “I have to say that publicly, that I cannot tolerate that type of depiction of our learners and our students.”

Stein sent an email on Feb. 15 to Vaillancourt, Stavely Hale and two of the educators who would ultimately sign the Northampton High School open letter, which was emailed to the Gazette on Feb. 18. Stein wrote that he wanted to “clarify some of my remarks from the other night as I believe they can be easily misinterpreted and taken out of context.”

“My concern is that by having both groups in one class, with clearly defined yet different expectations (rubrics) we reinforce to the groups of students that one group is more capable than the other,” Stein wrote. “You may rightfully object to me using the phrase first and second class learners but can you honestly say you are communicating anything differently to students by referring to them as standard and honors?”

He wrote that he was not on an honors track in high school, and that even though he went on to earn a doctoral degree, he still “internalized the message of a lower track.”

“What it told me was that I was not an honors student, that I couldn’t aspire to the standards they were being asked to meet and that I may go to college but shouldn’t shoot too high,” Stein wrote. “Certainly a lot has changed since I was in school but sorting students this way communicates quite a bit to them that is unspoken.”

Anisa Schardl, the math department chair and a signatory of the open letter, said Stein has a “misunderstanding” about the program and that students themselves chose whether to enroll in the honors or college prep track.

“With embedded honors, college prep students can see the challenge work and the honors assessments and try them, and can make the decision to switch to honors without disrupting their schedules. Since embedding honors, we are seeing more students taking on challenging materials and choosing to enroll in honors,” Schardl wrote in an email. “The fact that (Stein) labels our letter as a distraction also shows that he doesn’t understand how hurtful his words were.”

The educators’ open letter asks that the School Committee issue a public statement of apology to students and acknowledge that there are no first- or second-class students.

The educators said “Stein’s use of the terms ‘first-class’ and ‘second-class learners’ is not only inaccurate, but extremely disrespectful and damaging to students.”

The letter is signed by associate principals Meghan Harrison and Kara Sheridan along with the chairs of nine departments: math, 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 records related to the embedded honors program and begins with a seven-page section titled “Overview.”

The overview section is critical of the choice to offer the embedded honors program across all three integrated mathematics classes without seeking the School Committee’s approval. The report includes “proposed action items” such as ending the program in two classes and re-establishing “that broad system-wide curricular issues, such as elimination of stand-alone honors sections, require approval” by the committee.

Stein said the letter opposing his comments is “about that. I think they’re just sort of grasping at straws and trying to manufacture a scandal.”

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.
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