Freshmen and sophomores at Santa Monica High School will no longer be divided into “honors” and “regular” English classes beginning in the 2022-23 school year, a move that department personnel say will increase equity and positive outcomes for all students.

“What we’re doing is, we’re saying this is a new paradigm,” Samohi English teacher Sarah Rodriguez said during the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education meeting on March 10. “This is not about labeling students [or] labeling classes. It’s about saying all of our students are capable, and we’re going to meet them where they are.”

The shift in programming inspired strong feelings both for and against the move, inciting a wave of opposition from several parents who spoke at last week’s hearing, as well as support from several students and parents who self-identified as people of color.

Described as “The Samohi English department’s journey of self-reflection and analysis,” a new 10-page report presented at the Thursday meeting detailed the rationale for “detracking” ninth and 10th grade English classes in an effort to close the achievement gap at Samohi. After 10th grade, all students will be given the option to choose whether to enter an AP-level English course or select from among other English language arts offerings available at Samohi.

The reasoning for the change was largely due to concerns over the achievement gap between white students and students of color, as well as the gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We are a diverse school with segregated classes — that is the No. 1 problem here,” Samohi Principal Antonio Shelton said. “For instance, we have about 26 percent of our kids who are in ninth grade — and those ninth graders are Black and brown in a segregated class. We’re in 2022. That’s an issue; that’s a concern.”

The report states that the curriculum in “honors” and “regular” ninth and 10th grade English classes is similar; however, honors track courses tend to cover more material because of additional homework.

“We know that we can meet the needs of all students as we raise the level of instruction for all students,” Rodriguez said.

At the same time, Rodriguez explained, Samohi would continue to offer specialized academic instruction for students with special needs. The report detailed several avenues for students to receive additional support outside the new combined English curriculum, known as college preparatory English 9 and college preparatory English 10.

“We are extremely fortunate to have time built into our day to support students and their individual learning needs,” the report states. “Each week, teachers have two 50 minute flextime sessions to meet with struggling students one on one, reteach skills as needed to small groups, provide retake/revision opportunities, and help support students in any way they need.” The report also mentions weekly office hours, the Samohi Writing Center, a summer English 11AP boot camp and virtual 24-hour tutoring as additional resources for students.

School Board members raised questions about the way student success will be assessed in the new combined English track. Board Member Laurie Lieberman asked if the English Department had a method for determining the efficacy of the change.

Samohi English Department chair Nathan Fulcher replied that while the Department would continue its normal data collection and analysis, it would also look for ways for students to showcase their work through digital portfolios.

“I think most of us, as teachers, do at the end of the course the end-of-year reflections,” Fulcher added. “As we take kids through the writing process, we’re also constantly having them work on that metacognitive part and working on that self-reflection. So I think it’s a combination of all of those things.”

Rodriguez and others discussed how some students can be pigeonholed into believing they aren’t as smart or capable if they aren’t placed into honors classes. This was reinforced by some of the students who called in to the meeting.

“Since my freshman year, I’ve taken only honors and AP English classes, with the exception of my current class, Chicano and Latinx lit,” student Danielle Lopez said at the meeting. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have counselors and teachers support my enrollment in advanced courses; however, that is often not the case for other students of color, as it is constantly felt that there’s a system that’s working against us. I have witnessed a widening achievement gap within our students because of the separation of them using this honors system.”

Lopez said keeping certain students out of honors courses divides and stigmatizes them.

Despite support from students who called in, the move did not sit well with many parents who called in to the meeting to voice concerns that their honors students would be deprived of the opportunity to take advanced English classes in ninth and 10th grade.

“I think people are going to leave the school if they can’t get the enrichment for their children that’s appropriate to them and that environment,” parent Trevor Foucher said. “So, I think you’re going to get less involvement by parents, you’re going to get less donations and, ultimately, you’re going to end up with a poor education from dropping differentiation and dropping honors classes.”

Other parents spoke to encourage the District to focus on raising up the level of students not currently on the honors track, rather than make a move they see as lowering the standard for all kids.

Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez said that was not the way the move should be interpreted.

“I don’t think … people really understand the fact that you’re lifting from the bottom and everybody gets lifted,” Leon-Vazquez said. “It’s not like you lift the bottom and the top falls.”

*A previous version of this story stated Samohi was changing honors/AP labels; the school will not change or remove AP English curriculum.