The Northshore School District (NSD) serves high-achieving and highly-motivated students with two programs, a test-in highly-capable (“Hi-Cap”) program for grades second through eight at a limited number of schools, and a self-select honors program at every junior high, where students can enroll in courses where they work at a faster pace and with more rigorous curriculum (“Challenge Program”).

The Challenge Program allows students from a variety of academic and socio-economic backgrounds access at their home school to rigorous classes that will prepare them for Advanced Placement (“AP”) and International Baccalaureate (“IB”) courses in high school. Students can choose Challenge in just one or all core subjects (English, Social Studies, Math and Science), and can make a new choice each year.  In addition, Hi-Cap students who wish to remain in their neighborhood school, or who only qualify in Math or English, can choose to receive their highly-capable services in the Challenge classes.

NSD instituted the Challenge Program in response to community input, and developed performance measures to assess the program. Since its inception, four-out–of-five metrics have shown increases in performance (ranging from 15-to-57 percent), with free-and-reduced lunch populations faring even better (38-to-118 percent increases.)  These students are taking Algebra I earlier, taking more advanced Math and AP classes, and more are meeting minimum college entrance requirements. This District Performance Scorecard has additional information about how students in the program have fared over time.

The Challenge Program Works. Why does NSD want to end it?

This is what concerned parents want to know.

As NSD plans for grade reconfiguration in 2017, converting from a three-year junior high/three-year high school model to four-year high schools and grades six-through-eight for middle schools, task forces are examining the impacts of these changes, including on academic programs. It is our understanding that the Academics Subcommittee was formed to explore and research one model: how to provide a challenging curriculum for all in the context of heterogeneous classrooms, which would put an end to the self-select Challenge Program.

Save Our Challenge is a grassroots group of concerned Northshore parents that believes elimination of the Challenge Program would do an immense disservice to the full range of students in NSD middle schools.

If a heterogeneous classroom model is adopted, there would be no more choice. Students of all abilities and interest levels would be grouped in a single classroom. Moreover, teachers would be expected to use the more rigorous Challenge curriculum while differentiating instruction and homework for each individual student, from struggling learners to those already receiving highly-capable instruction in the home school. This could mean that one teacher would have to employ differentiation for 100-150 students each day—a burdensome and completely unrealistic goal.

Parents are gravely concerned for the students who struggle currently with existing supports in the general education classes– what additional supports will they need when the Challenge curriculum is used in their classes, with no means of opting-out? Moreover, how will heterogeneous, one-size-fits-all classes serve the needs of students who want to move at a faster pace?  And how will Hi-Cap students get their legally-required services?

The Middle School Task Force adopted a mission statement:

Northshore School District middle schools provide a learning community that is challenging, equitable, empowering, and developmentally responsive to prepare students for high school and beyond.

The current Challenge Program meets the requirements of the new Middle School mission statement above. With the option of self-selecting into Challenge classes, students are empowered to challenge themselves in preparation for high school and beyond. This makes the Challenge Program a model of developmental responsiveness and equity.

Our message to the district: If it’s not broken, don’t break it. 

Learn more about Save Our Challenge at our website here.

_________________________________________________________

About the author: Nancy Chamberlain is a former NSD teacher and parent of two children, one of whom went through the Challenge Program; the other currently is in the Hi-Cap program.