Barrington High School bringing back some honors options

Schools returning to honors ‘distinction’ not honors courses, despite parents’ pleas

By Josh Bickford
Posted 3/31/22

Barrington High School Principal Joe Hurley announced the return of an honors distinction program during a special meeting on Wednesday night, although some parents and students were calling for the re-instatement of full honors courses.

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Barrington High School bringing back some honors options

Schools returning to honors ‘distinction’ not honors courses, despite parents’ pleas

Posted

Barrington High School Principal Joe Hurley announced the return of an honors distinction program during a special meeting on Wednesday night, although some parents and students were calling for the re-instatement of full honors courses.

During a three-and-a-half hour meeting at the high school auditorium, dozens of Barrington parents and a handful of students criticized the school administration for previous changes made to the honors program and conceptual classes.

The criticism — pointed at Barrington High School Principal Joe Hurley, Assistant Superintendent in charge of Curriculum Paula Dillon, Superintendent Michael Messore, and members of the school committee — targeted the failed honors distinction program, a lack of transparency on the issue, and an unwillingness for school officials to listen to the parents’ and students’ cries for a return to honors courses at the high school.

About three weeks ago, the district, having already eliminated some honors courses a year earlier, announced it was abandoning the honors distinction option for Social Studies and English classes. 

But on Wednesday night, Hurley said school officials had discovered that the elimination of honors courses at Barrington High School would negatively impact students when they applied for merit scholarships. 

“That was a game-changer,” Hurley said, adding that the new plan was to create a new honors distinction program.

But the return to that option did little to appease parents and students who gathered at the high school or attended the meeting online.

Devyn Smith, Fred Hartman, Carolanne McTaggart, Thomas Peck, Parisa Beers, Hayden Kelley, Lisa Daft, Kara Kelley, Jen Gill, Kelly Andreoni, Julie Owens, Neile Hartman, Maura McCrann, John Stafford, Maria Vassilieva, Jyothsnanath Parachuru, John Kittredge, Luke Van Ness, Shelli Edgar, Frazier Bell, Anthony Bucci, Tim Twohig, Cassie DiGiacomo, Giana Bucci, Maria Wah Fitta, Ellen Schaffer, Ace Mosier, Hans Schattle, Sharon Santos, Anna Amoiradaki, Jack Silveirio and about a dozen others spoke out in opposition to either the elimination of the honors classes or the re-introduction of a re-worked honors distinction program. 

They also shared their concerns about the direction the current administration and school committee are taking the Barrington School District.

“I say read the room. Read the community,” Anthony Bucci said. “Do something about this. Vote against it, or else we’ll have your jobs.”

At the end of the meeting, school committee members decided not to vote on anything. 

Chairwoman Gina Bae said there appeared to be a consensus among members calling for another meeting in May to share an update on the situation. 

School committee members requested that the May meeting include the plan for the next iteration of the honors distinction program, clear data on the current honors distinction program, lessons learned from the problem-plagued program, how the new program will be communicated to parents and students, and the expectations for the new program. 

Hurley said he will meet with teachers in the English and Social Studies departments at the high school and they will make revisions to the honors distinction program. He said the new program will be good for students and for teachers.

Following the meeting, Neile Hartmann stood in the school parking lot talking to some other Barrington parents. 

“I am profoundly disappointed,” she said. “I don’t even know where to begin. I leave here actually fairly shocked in that the community was so clearly aligned in what they asked for and provided such salient arguments as to why it was logical to go to vote to go back to what was, meaning full honors coursework, and for them (school officials) to totally disregard the community’s voice and to not go to a vote and then in fact to embrace a failed system of this past year of honors distinction, it is a profound disappointment. 

“I think we as a community need to dig deep and ask the question of ‘Do we have confidence in this school committee? Do we have confidence in the school administration?’ 

“I think it now levels things up to much bigger questions. These are our kids. What matters more? I can’t imagine wasting yet another year watching our rising 10th-grader be a guinea pig in a system that clearly has no clearly articulated plan for success.”

Parents speak out

Mr. Hurley opened the discussion with an overview of the programs offered at the high school, but that information did little to ease concerns of parents at the meeting.

The first speaker, Devyn Smith, said his family moved to Barrington because of the schools, but now district leaders were making changes to “screw things up.” 

Smith said Paula Dillon, the district’s director of curriculum, is intent on de-leveling math and science also, removing honors courses in those subjects. He said school leaders have not been accurate in their statements and have dismissed Barrington parents and their children.

You cannot tell us that removing honors courses will help our kids be more prepared for AP (Advanced Placement) courses, Smith said. 

He said it was clear parents want the honors classes back. He said the BHS School Improvement Team wanted to keep the honors classes. Mr. Smith said Ms. Dillon claimed she did not know anything about the changes. 

You can’t back away from this, Smith said to Dillon. You can’t throw Mr. Hurley under the bus, he added.

Smith finished by saying that he had no confidence in the current school administration, and he challenged the school committee to do something about it — take a vote, he said.

Fred Hartman shared an excerpt of a letter written by Cristiana Quinn, the founder of a college admission advising company who has worked with many Barrington students.

The letter stated, in part, that school officials were “gambling with what has been their crown jewel for so long: a high achieving, top-ranked, public high school.”

Peck suggested that the school committee state the issues it was trying to resolve by removing the honors classes. He also spoke about the removal of conceptual classes, and implored the school committee vote to restore the honors courses and conceptual classes next year. 

Parisa Beers made a similar request. She also said Dillon had made false statements to the media — that remark drew a loud cheer from the crowd. 

Dillon, who sat beside other administrators on the auditorium stage, did not offer any rebuttal to comments and criticisms. 

Beers also said Bae, the committee chairwoman, had shared false statements with Channel 10 news.

Lisa Daft spoke about the importance of honors classes — she said they had helped her children prepare for future academic challenges. Daft said her son had recently been accepted into a very competitive college business school, but would have gotten in without the experiences gained in honors courses.

“We need to keep our public schools competitive,” Daft said.

Kara Kelley said school officials had done a poor job communicating the changes in the honors program. She referenced Hurley’s statement that this year had been a hard one with the honors distinction program. 

“This is hard because you made it hard,” Kelley said.

Jen Gill said Hurley has been caught in the middle of this situation, a decision that was forced upon him by other administrators. She said more than 1,300 residents oppose the removal of honors classes. 

Gill said she was appalled that no school officials had checked into the impact removal of honors courses would have on financial aid and merit scholarships before instituting the previous change. 

Gill also spoke about other honors courses. She said math and science honors courses were on the chopping block before and they will be on the chopping block again.

Please return us to where we were and figure out what you’re doing, Gill said.

Kelly Andreoni told school officials that she was an educator, adding that leveled courses work well for kids. She said that the argument that leveling courses creates barriers for students is “just not accurate.”

Julie Owens said the new honors distinction program is not more equitable for students — in fact, those students with a strong support network at home will benefit more than those without, she said. Owens said the district’s problems are a “self-inflicted wound” and could have been avoided if officials just listened to the lived experiences of parents and students. 

“We’re not crazy,” she said. “This shouldn’t be adversarial.”

Neile Hartman said her family came to Barrington for its schools. She said she loves Barrington, but she does not love this mess, adding that it was self-inflicted.

Hartman placed blame on Dillon — she said Dillon was determined to force this change through. 

Hartman also criticized Hurley’s presentation and members of the school committee (excluding Patrick McCrann). She implored members to have the courage to vote to go back to the previous program of studies. 

Maura McCrann said the real problem is a lack of trust. She said she had spoken at previous school committee meetings and asked for action months ago — the committee has done nothing, and the administration has done nothing, she added.

John Stafford questioned an earlier reference by Hurley about the recent NEASC accreditation report, which, Hurley said, included a request for more heterogeneously-grouped classes in Barrington.

“Our goal should not be a NEASC report,” Stafford said. The district’s goal, he added, should be a top-100 rank among all high schools nationally. He said Barrington High School should be working toward being top-100 in sports, sciences, math, and other areas. 

“You have the power to change this,” Stafford said.

Frazier Bell said he was a member of the BHS School Improvement Team that focused its work on the honors program issue. He said the SIT members were surveyed and 75 percent of the team was in favor of returning to honors in one form or another. Bell said the voices outside the school were ignored and Hurley instead focused on those in the BHS English and Social Studies departments.

Many other residents spoke out — some spoke about their children’s positive experiences taking honors courses previous to the change. Some said school officials needed to go outside the box to resolve the issue, but removing honors courses was not the answer. Some challenged the school committee to take action, to listen to parents, to abandon the honors distinction approach.

Hans Schattle, speaking via Zoom, offered a compromise. 

He said Barrington’s school leaders could go back to the honors classes offered years ago, and also extend the honors distinction for students who opt not to take an honors course. That move, he said, “can give us a win and a better outcome.”

Schattle said he agreed with the idea of heterogeneity, but cautioned that it was false logic to put all students in the same level of classes. He said that move creates a difficult scenario for teachers and students. 

Anna Amoiradaki referenced Barrington school officials’ decision to hire consultant Katie Novak, who played a role in the de-leveling at BHS. Amoiradaki said Novak had been forced to resign from her own school district because of de-leveling; she said Novak had used students in her own district to pilot de-leveling and now was “doing the same thing to our kids,” she said. 

Amoiradaki also said school officials should not be trying to improve the educational experience for one group of students and at the same time worsening the experience for another group.

Liana Cassar, the vice chairwoman of the Barrington Democratic Town Committee and the District 66 representative, was the lone individual to speak out in support of the school committee and administrators. She applauded the move to create more heterogenous classes, and said she was concerned about the outpouring of criticism. She referred to it as rhetoric.

Barrington resident Ellen Schaffer responded to that, stating that “this is not about rhetoric” and that local parents and students brought facts and real data to the conversation… “not rhetoric.” 

Schaffer warned that the conversation involving honors courses is reminiscent of other issues in Barrington Schools — she said “agendas are being rolled out” using the same playbook over and over again. 

She also told other meeting attendees to take a closer look at Rep. Cassar’s seat during the next election. 

Students speak out

Luke Van Ness was one of about a half-dozen Barrington students who spoke out against the removal of honors courses. 

The sophomore at Barrington High School said the honors distinction program had failed on many fronts, and asked why officials were looking to push it through again if it has already been proven as a failure.

Van Ness said that students are taught that when they fail they need to figure out why they failed, understand the situation and then make the necessary changes. He said school officials have failed with this decision and need to reverse it — if not, then they have failed at their jobs.

He said school officials who are not willing to reverse the decision can seek another possible solution: Resign.

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