By Marina Renton         

Superintendent Marinel McGrath recently announced a significant change in the freshman curriculum at AHS:  the required freshman Environmental Science course will be dropped from the curriculum next year and replaced by an additional required English writing course.

“For some time, there has been a growing concern about the lack of continuity in English instruction at Andover High, particularly during the freshman and sophomore years when the development of writing is a critical foundational skill,” explained Dr. McGrath.  “The data, compiled last summer by Ms. Whalen and a data team comprising high school English teachers, are quite clear that our high school students’ writing progress has been declining between 8th and 10th grades and it is not on a par with those of students in comparable districts.”

According to Dr. McGrath, this decline can be attributed to the “gap in instruction” when students take one English course for one semester freshman year and two Science courses. “In response to this,” said Dr. McGrath, “Ms. Whalen submitted a proposal to her fellow program advisors, Dr. Sharkey, Assistant Superintendent Duclos and me for our consideration.”

The new English writing course will be implemented beginning in September 2012. Freshmen will take one semester of English devoted to composition and writing and another semester devoted to studying literature.

The English Department has proposed that the new class focus on “instruction in expository and informational writing, vocabulary development, and skills work in usage and mechanics with an emphasis on 21st century skills.  There will be a unit on web-based research, writing, and communication.  Students will learn and regularly practice revision and editing strategies. Usage and mechanics areas to be covered include subject/verb and pronoun/antecedent agreement, parallel structure, the use of modifiers, and punctuation.  Students may be heterogeneously grouped, and the course may be scheduled for either first or second semester. A full year of instruction in ELA will provide all students with the foundation they need for further study in this content area and throughout their high school program.”

With the new English course replacing Environmental Science as a freshman requirement, Environmental Science will now become an elective. “We were told that we will lose nineteen sections of science,” said science teacher Mrs. Shenker, who was given the news with the rest of the science department by Mr. Sanborn, the science department head.

This curriculum change will affect AHS teachers both positively and negatively.  According to Dr. McGrath, the change in the status of Environmental Science will “negatively impact three teachers from the science department.”  On the other hand, the superintendent pointed out, “To implement the ninth-grade writing course, we will need to hire additional teachers of English.”

This curriculum change is not a result of the schedule negotiations associated with the teacher contract as those are ongoing. “It is a programmatic decision developed in direct response to the overall needs of our students,” said Dr. McGrath. “In my role as superintendent, it is my responsibility to continually review our programs to ensure they address our students’ needs and to act in their best interest.”

She added, “As superintendent, I must approve all changes to the curriculum and I approved the ninth-grade writing course.”

The AHS Science Department feels strongly that freshman Environmental Science is a valuable element of the high-school science curriculum.  Environmental Science is not a course that is unique to the high school; many schools offer the class, but only AHS has made it a required course for freshmen. Science department head Mr. Sanborn argued for continuing the Environmental Science course, a position taken by the school’s Environmental Science teachers as well.

“Environmental Science is a 21st century skill. If there was ever a time that Environmental Science was needed, it’s today,” said science teacher Mr. Shenker.  In addition to being relevant to current events, Environmental Science is a course generally well-liked by students. “One of the important things about a class is that if students like it, they’ll remember it,” said environmental science teacher Mrs. Shenker.  Mrs. Shenker went on to say, “It disheartens me to see a class so dear to my heart and so important to the future of our planet removed from the high school.”

With the loss of Environmental Science, AHS might well lose a related program:  “[Without Environmental Science], there will be no sustainable garden,” explained Mrs. Shenker. The sustainable garden, founded two years ago, has grown impressively in a short period of time. During the summer, its produce is sold at the farmers’ market in town, and often in late spring the produce is used in school lunches. In addition, the end of required Environmental Science could mark the end of visits to the “Environmental Sites,” located on AVIS land.