Don't force students to take lunch. Don't get rid of honors-level classes. Do start school in early August and conclude final exams before winter break.
Those were just some of the opinions offered by parents, students and teachers in Niles Township High School District 219 Thursday evening.
For more than two hours, people stepped up to microphone to address Niles North High School Principal Ryan McTague, Niles West Principal Kaine Osburn and a panel of teachers and department heads. Each person was allotted three minutes, and more than three dozen people spoke.
They addressed a number of issues, including changing the school calendar to start earlier in August, moving to a focus on having at least half of students take at least one academically-challenging Advanced Placement (AP) class, requiring students to take a lunch period and more.
Keep the honors classes
The most commented-upon topic concerned the district's previously-announced aspiration to have most, or at least 50 percent of, students take at least one Advanced Placement class. District 219's superintendent, Nanciann Gatta, and the school board have previously stated they see the district's mission as preparing students for college, and they have said AP classes, which are academically rigorous, help students ready themselves for post-secondary school.
At Thursday's town hall meeting, many parents and students pleaded with the administrators not to scrap honors-level classes, which are more challenging than regular-level classes but not as difficult as AP classes.
"There’s a place for honors classes," said parent Lisa Lipin. "Some kids would be bored with regular classes, but AP classes would be too much for them."
A parent who identified herself as Debbie concurred, saying her children had "worked their butts off" in AP classes.
One student said she studies as much as three hours a night for an AP class, and that, given how hard they are, it's unrealistic for the district to expect most students to take an AP class. She also said students should not take AP classes in subjects they're not passionate about.
"Our goal is not to have students take more AP to take more AP, but what we see is that there are students who could succeed in at least one AP course who aren’t doing so," replied Osburn.
All the data show that students who take an AP course, even it they don't get a high grade, are better prepared for college than students who took a non-AP course, he added.
Change the calendar
A handful of students, and a few parents, had mixed opinions on whether to change the school calendar to start in early August.
Ryan McTague, principal of Niles North High School, said in introductory remarks that the idea came from students themselves. They disliked having to spend winter break studying for final exams, and they also felt that a week in early January was wasted because it was spent reviewing for finals, he said. By starting in early August, they could take finals before winter break and have a true respite at the holidays, he said.
"The new calendar would be congruent with community colleges at universities, students could begin college second semester of senior year, or take summer courses," he said.
Well, maybe don't change the calendar
The premise of students being on board with the idea got quickly challenged by a girl who identified herself as a Niles West student council member, and said her organization did not support the idea.
Another student in favor of the calendar change commented that some ambitious students view winter break as valuable study time they can use to excel on final exams.
Other students, however, said they did like the idea of getting finals over with before winter break. Student Allie Salter commented, "Yes we can use the two weeks of break to study but it doesn’t often happen that way."
Referring to the first week back at school in January, she said, "It’s like a really boring week, just review packet after review packet. I don’t like the change to my summer but I’m willing to sacrifice that to have finals before winter break."
Other parents commented that, with their younger children in the area's elementary schools starting classes later in August, some families who can only take vacation time in August--for example, if their kids are in summer school or activities--would be robbed of family time if District 219 started in early August.
Require students to take lunch?
While District 219 has noticed some kids don't have a lunch period and is considering requiring them to take one, parent Linda Rozich felt they should not.
Speaking of her daughter, she said, "If she had a lunch period she’d have to miss something. I think the school sends mixed messages by saying 'get out there and do things,' and then 'don’t be overburdened by taking these other classes.'
"It’s not for every student but if that student wants to do it, they should be allowed to."