Challenging Schools to Challenge Kids

Dan Garvey, who teaches "theory of knowledge" in the Pierson IB program, facilitates a student discussion in April of 2017.

When it comes to college acceptances, consider that it often comes down to institutions wanting to know that a student has taken the most difficult courses that a school has offered, experts say.

Take it from Yale’s own “Advice to Candidates” page: “When the admissions committee looks at your transcript, it will not focus on whether you have taken any specific course. It will be far more interested to see that you have challenged yourself with difficult coursework, and have done well.”

That difficult coursework looks different from school to school on the South Fork.

At Sag Harbor’s Pierson Middle-High School, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program has firmly taken root as a rigorous course of study that prepares students for college, but school officials are busy ramping up the middle school level to make the curriculum more challenging in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

At East Hampton High School, in a renovated school library that more closely resembles a tech startup’s campus than a traditional classroom, the new Advanced Placement (AP) Capstone program has students working on yearlong projects of their own choosing — projects based on years of applied learning, which they will present and defend in front of a group later this year.

And at the Bridgehampton School, it was a win for academics last week when the school board approved a policy limiting the number of study hall periods a student can take to one per day — a policy that will force them to beef up their schedules with more core classes and electives in their high school years — and school administrators rolled out plans to add more high-level options for high school students.

“I think we have the potential here in Sag Harbor to have one of the best schools in the state. We should strive for that for all of the students,” said Alex Kriegsman, a local attorney and parent who serves on the Sag Harbor School Board. Speaking on his own behalf, he said there seems to be populations of students whose needs are not currently being met.

“I know there are a lot of parents who live in the district and send their kids to the elementary school,” Mr. Kriegsman said, “and when they get older, they leave and go to boarding school, and that’s a bad thing for the district. We should be looking at areas where we can improve.”

He had initially advocated for the district to implement the IB Middle Years Programme, which would have covered grades six through ten, but which would have proven costly and yielded staffing problems at Pierson. Instead, school officials are planning to adopt some aspects of the IB Middle Years Programme without fully rolling out the entire curriculum. For instance, an individual student project and theory-of-knowledge concepts are some of the ideas being investigated, and about three-quarters of all teachers at Pierson are currently IB-certified.

“A lot of it starts with the philosophy that we value what IB stresses, and we encourage the teachers to get trained,” Pierson principal Jeff Nichols said. “They take those concepts and apply them to day-to-day teaching.”

At Bridgehampton, principal Michael Miller described the course additions, study hall policy and additional requirement that middle school students take band or chorus throughout the sixth, seventh or eighth grades as “boosting the curriculum.” Astronomy, AP marine biology, AP Spanish and more sections of chemistry and physics are examples of future course offerings. Another change is the proposed elimination of the elementary school enrichment period, which would be replaced with more teaching time for social studies and science. Enrichment would then be incorporated into the “specials,” which refer to subjects like art and library, Mr. Miller explained.

“The most important influence on a student is the teacher in the classroom,” he said. “If we’re giving more core instructional time with those teachers, academics will improve.”

While Bridgehampton and Pierson offer their eighth graders the chance to take “living environment,” a biology class, in eighth grade, East Hampton offers its eighth graders the chance to take earth science. That’s considered a high school class because it culminates in a Regents exam and typically earns a student a credit toward graduation. Either way, taking a Regents science course in eighth grade paves the way for a student to take classes like AP Physics or AP Biology as a senior.

Students in eighth grade can also take an accelerated math class, algebra I, which also ends with a Regents test and yields credit, or they can stay in a typical eighth-grade math class. But in each school, a student would most likely have to take algebra I in eighth grade in order to access advanced courses like AP Calculus in his or her senior year.

Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor and East Hampton all have an open enrollment policy — meaning there are no minimum grades needed, and any student can sign up — for their most rigorous classes.

“I’m not into building walls for students,” Mr. Nichols said.

However, the general flow from honors class to honors class from the middle school years on upward often leads to a philosophical debate over tracking. The term “tracking” refers to the practice of separating high-achieving students into distinct sections, rather than allowing students of different ability levels to learn together in heterogeneous settings. Tracking has been associated not only with limiting students’ academic mobility, but it has also been associated with promoting racial and socioeconomic segregation in schools.

“In the past, potential reformers were wary of heterogeneous grouping because there were few well-documented, successful alternatives to stratified systems,” Carol C. Burris, the former principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, wrote along with two colleagues for the National Education Policy Center in 2009. “In short, the excuse for low-expectations classes was simply that there was no alternative. But today’s successful heterogeneously-grouped classrooms and schools — where all students are taught a challenging, common curriculum — offer convincing proof that this reform can produce increased achievement and far more equitable outcomes, and they illustrate the path to such success.”

Dr. Robert Tymann, East Hampton’s assistant superintendent, acknowledged that a degree of tracking exists at the district’s middle school.

“Philosophically, I do think tracking is something that is not good for students, but our system is not yet in a place where we can eliminate it totally,” he said. “Classroom instruction must evolve to a point where each student is challenged at the appropriate level. This will bring with it an exchange of insights and ideas from many different perspectives, which at times inhibits learning in a tracked system.”

A change coming for all schools is the transition from the Common Core standards to the Next Generation standards, which Dr. Tymann said are actually pretty exciting.

“Now you have to learn to do science and social studies, not just memorize stuff,” he said. “Our students who will be held to these standards will be much better prepared for life outside of school. No standards should be static forever — they should be tweaked.”