Challenge courses to be retained for Northshore middle school students

Challenge courses will be retained for Northshore School District middle school students after the School Board voted to preserve a modified version of the program.

Nortshore School District - Contributed art

Challenge courses will be retained for Northshore School District middle school students after the School Board voted to preserve a modified version of the program.

The five-member board voted 3-2 to keep dual track regular and Challenge course options for 7th and 8th grade students, while making all classrooms teach on par with Challenge-level classrooms for 6th graders. An option which was strongly opposed by the Northshore Education Association (NSEA), the district’s teachers union and which could be a lynch pin in possible strike negotiations.

The Challenge courses are more rigorous classes which students may opt into at the beginning of the year. Though they use the same curriculum, teachers encourage students to explore the material more thoroughly.

School Board president Amy Cast said the decision was a compromise, but the best current option.

“I do believe that it addresses concerns of staff and concerns of parents,” she said.

The issue drew battle lines between the teachers union, who said the Challenge courses had the unintended consequence of discriminating against some minority groups, and parent activists who argued providing the option of selecting Challenge courses helped all students.

NSEA had hoped all 6th through 8th grade classrooms would have been combined and consequently provide all students with a more in-depth education, which they said would help close the achievement gap.

NSEA president Tim Brittell said educators were heavily opposed to keeping Challenge courses.

“[The School Board] ignored the professional judgment of the teachers, the administrators and the head researchers and chose to continue a program that is detrimental to students,” he said. “We don’t believe in segregating schools by ability at the ages of 11 to 13, it’s not appropriate, these are kids that all of the research says need to be taught together in heterogeneous classrooms.”

Parents argued ending the courses would only punish students who wanted to delve into the material, and would do little to close the achievement gap, which they said starts well before middle school.

Cast agreed the district should address the gap but that it should be done on what she calls a ‘continuum’ from kindergarten through high school.

But Brittell said the board should have listened more to what teachers were saying.

“They chose to listen to a vocal minority and disregard the opinions of the professional educators,” he said.

At the meeting, board member Ken Smith said he would like to see the Challenge courses evaluated more thoroughly, but ultimately supported keeping them.

The Bellevue School District used to have a program similar to Challenge courses, but due to the high enrollment in them, all classes were switched to the more rigorous classes.

Cast said this would be the ideal solution and hopes the NSD School Board could achieve something similar in the future, though she said during the next school year they will be busy facilitating massive grade and district boundary adjustments.

“We really understand that we have to help our students prepare for an increasingly rigorous career pathway,” she said. “We are asked, as a school district, to prepare our students to enter an increasingly technical world.”

Brittel said as contract negotiations approach, the approval of Challenge courses would be a key issue. While he would not say if the union would strike because of it, as well as for higher pay for para-educators and smaller class sizes, he said NSEA was preparing for the “best” and the “worst.”

“If the Northshore School District would move on a few issues, we could move on a few issues,” he said. “Right now we seem to be staring at each other.”

During the 2017-2018school year, 9th grade students will be moved up to high schools, creating 5th through 8th grade middle schools and district boundaries will be redrawn, routing some students to different schools.

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