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New law spurs anticipation more teens will pursue honors, other advanced courses

The Normal Community High School can be seen behind the school's orange and black digital sign.
Ralph Weisheit
WGLT file
A new law taking effect in the fall could boost enrollment to advanced courses in Illinois public high schools.

A new state mandate aims to help schools avoid overlooking teens with high academic potential.

Starting this fall, students who meet or exceed state testing standards will be automatically enrolled in the next most rigorous course.

Dan Lamboley
Dan Lamboley

Think honors, and college-credit options such as AP and dual credit.

Illinois school districts — including those based in Bloomington and Normal — are preparing for the shift. Letters have gone out to qualifying students, staff are covering the topic in freshman orientation nights, and some districts even are running pilot programs this year leading up to the change.

“Based on what we’re seeing in the number of kids that qualify, I think we're going to have more students in these courses,” said Dan Lamboley, who leads secondary education for Unit 5, McLean County’s largest school district.

That means the district is planning for what’s ahead: “We're going to really need to be responsive to the needs of all kids, so that they're successful in these courses,” he said.

Before now, access to these higher levels was limited. Entry required a teacher recommendation, a parent insisting on higher placement, or a motivated student advocating for themselves.

Still, for the past decade, Illinois has seen enrollment in AP and dual creditcourses grow tremendously.

So why the change?

Inequity behind state’s move to change rule

Educators say the statewide change is rooted in the fight to close racial disparities and other inequities in the education system.

Krystal Shelvin
Kristal Shelvin

“The additional legislation came about as a result of really wanting to continue to increase the representation of students in advanced coursework at the high school level,” said Lamboley.

Some historically underrepresented groups are students of color, students from lower-income households, and those who have special education eligibility, according to Kristal Shelvin, Unit 5’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion director.

“One of the goals of the amendment is to increase the range of students who are attending these accelerated classes," said Shelvin. “So, to offer opportunities for students who maybe weren't individually tapped on the shoulder, and now that is open to everyone — it's the default to advance rather than a specific, ‘Hey, you would be a good student or a good fit for this program.'"

District 87, Unit 5 focused on broad access

District 87 and Unit 5 already have been tackling underrepresentation in academics.

“Our high schools have had this as part of their school improvement plans for the past several years, even before this act,” said Darrin Cooper, director of teaching and learning for Unit 5.

“So, they've been looking at their data, and they've been striving to get more students into those advanced placement courses,” he said.

After the district launched its Equity Action Plan, Normal Community and Normal Community West high schools have been working to understand, and respond to, why certain student groups aren’t as visible in those accelerated learning environments, Shelvin said.

They learned sometimes Unit 5 teens who did qualify for honors resisted the idea because they didn’t want to leave their friends, or because they hadn’t been specifically asked to join.

In other cases, parents did not know they could ask for their student to be in the more rigorous offering.

As part of an annual enrollment report, Lamboley told the Unit 5 school board last month the two high schools are making progress to increase diverse representation to the advanced courses. He expects automated enrollments will push those figures even more, especially for incoming juniors.

Unit 5 enrolls more than 12,000 students. Of those, about 3,700 are in high school. Bloomington’s District 87 is less than half its size, with about 1,400 high schoolers.

District 87 runs pilot program ahead of law

Nicole Rummel
Nicole Rummel

District 87 Assistant Superintendent Nicole Rummel said Bloomington High School has been running a pilot program this academic year, in advance of the required change.

“So, we wanted to kind of get our feet wet on what the process would look like — what it would entail. So, we used incoming freshmen to kind of see how many kids we were looking at, how it might impact the master schedule, and what it might look like going forward,” she said.

The district expects enrollments in the accelerated courses to jump overall. But if the pilot program is any indicator, BHS is bucking the statewide inequity issue as it relates to accelerated placement, said Rummel.

“When we went through the data, and looked at the numbers, we were very happy that there were no discrepancies with certain populations,” she said, adding “It wasn’t all students, maybe, that qualify for free-reduced lunch, or a significant number of students that might be identified as black, or two or more races. It was a good representation of our student body.”

Getting the word out

Both districts have sent letters to families with students qualifying for the auto enrollment.

Those families are asked to review the letters that contain the course the student qualifies for, and what the standard version is.

Unit 5’s Cooper said the district wants to hear from the parents of qualifying students by Dec. 15. A digital survey asks whether they’ll opt out, or pursue the automatic placement.

BHS Associate Principal Sally Kelly said District 87 families should respond by Jan. 19, but only if they want to opt out. Instructions on how to do that are attached to the letters, she said.

By law, a qualifying Illinois high school student won’t be removed from the more rigorous course — unless a parent specifically consents to opting out.

Educators say if a family changes their mind on a decision, there also will be room to adjust schedules this spring.

Auto enrollment not only way to access advanced courses

Leaders from both districts said automatic enrollment is not the only way a student has access to a more rigorous course.

State test scores trigger that automatic entry. But other factors can be considered, too.

A teacher or parent, or the student themselves, can push for advancement — without that auto qualifier.

But on the flip side, they say auto enrollment isn’t written in stone. As long as a parent or guardian provides the district written consent, the student can opt out. But they have to take that initiative.

New rollout could bring challenges

District 87’s Rummel said the mandate’s singular lens on test scores will bring challenges educators need to address.

“Students are being placed as a result of one assessment. And that's the way the law is written, it doesn't take into account students' performance in the previous course,” she said.

“So, if a student is struggling, let's say in Algebra One ... and they pass or got a high enough score on the PSAT, and they’re auto placed into Honors Geometry, the student could find that to be challenging,” said Rummel.

Or maybe an incoming freshman is automatically placed into two or three honors-level offerings. That could be a significant adjustment from a middle-school workload.

Rummel and Unit 5’s Cooper contend the bottom line is parents are their student’s best advocate. If they have concerns, the families should contact a teacher or guidance counselor to get more advice — automatic placement, or not.

For some families this might be their first experience with an honors, or college-credit course, that's another consideration, said Shelvin.

The mandate could trigger a new landscape, and that means Unit 5 staff are watching closely, to know how to serve students, added Lamboley.

"Our teachers are sensing this, our school counselors are sensing this is — are we prepared to really support the students in the needs that they have, who are now in our advanced courses. We have a responsibility to do that,” he said.

District 87 and Unit 5 administrators said with its challenges, the new policy also brings opportunities.

Students who do take honors, AP, or dual credit courses are more likely to advance to higher education.

And Darin Cooper said taking those classes give high schoolers a chance to save time and money when it comes to their college experiences because they can earn college credit before high school graduation.

Both districts have partnerships with Heartland Community College for its dual credit offerings. AP courses are offered in collaboration with The College Board.

Unit 5’s Shelvin said as the state moves forward with this mandate, people should keep in mind the course content isn’t getting any easier.

“Whenever we open access to more students to something that is advanced, sometimes people tend to see it as ‘Oh, they're opening it to students who are not qualified,'” she said.

Shelvin said that’s not the case. “This effort is to make sure that everyone who is qualified has access to an opportunity to take these advanced level courses, not just students who are identified through another means,” she said, adding the statewide approach allows Illinois to better serve all students with the potential to be highly successful.

The Illinois State Board of Education oversees nearly 900 public school districts. Among those, there wasn’t a consistent policy for who got welcomed, or recruited into the accelerated formats.

As for how many of these students’ families choose to take the state’s advice, that remains to be seen.

Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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