After hearing objections from parents and students over the past several weeks, Patrick Henry High School is pausing the elimination of some, but not all, advanced courses that were cut recently, San Diego Unified officials said Wednesday.
Patrick Henry High, a racially diverse school in the middle-class San Carlos neighborhood and the largest high school in San Diego, has been in turmoil in recent weeks after students and parents learned that Principal Michelle Irwin has been cutting advanced, honors and gifted education courses without warning them or asking for their input.
On Wednesday afternoon hundreds of Patrick Henry students attended a protest on their campus quad, calling for the school to bring back the courses. A petition that calls for restoration of those courses launched last week and has more than 2,100 signatures. Parents created a Facebook group about the issue, spoke to reporters and sent emails to school and district leaders condemning the cuts.
“After hearing from students today and parents recently who had questions, the school is pausing the course changes to continue the discussion on how to best enable each student to reach their full potential academically,” San Diego Unified spokesperson Mike Murad said in an email Wednesday.
In an interview, Irwin said she is holding off on the course changes to gather comments from parents and students, “because again, this is all about partners in education. We can’t do this without our parents and our students.”
The school has scheduled two, one-hour Zoom forums for current and future Patrick Henry High families where Irwin and other district officials will discuss the course changes and answer questions. One forum will be held Thursday evening and the other will be Friday morning.
Between 2020 and 2022, the school eliminated eight advanced courses for ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders, according to a course list Irwin sent to families last week: Advanced World History, Honors U.S. History, Advanced English, Honors American Literature, Advanced Physics, Advanced Biology and two English courses designed for gifted-identified students.
Irwin said in an interview that she is pausing elimination of only the courses that were going to be cut for next school year, which were Advanced English, Honors American Literature and Honors U.S. History. The other courses were already cut last year and will not be restored, Irwin said.
Irwin has said she dropped the courses to improve equity. She has said she wanted to eliminate the stigma of non-honors courses and “create more balanced heterogeneously grouped classes.”
The course cuts were also meant to address the racial disparities that persistently accompany advanced offerings: generally, Black and Latino students are under-enrolled in advanced classes, partly because advanced courses often come with prerequisites that are biased against underrepresented students, some education experts say.
But experts who have studied the underrepresentation of Black and Latino students in gifted and other advanced programs say it is better to expand access to advanced courses rather than eliminate them.
Cutting courses means all students, including underrepresented students, will lose access to advanced course opportunities, which not only help students get into the colleges of their choice, but provide a faster and more challenging pace that some students need, some argue.
“I don’t see the purpose in trying to purge all these classes instead of promoting students that are in marginalized communities to prepare themselves for higher-level classes instead,” said Mena Vo, a 15-year-old sophomore who co-organized Wednesday’s student protest. “I just think that people should have the opportunity to try.”
Irwin said the course cuts are not decreasing access, but expanding it. The idea, she said, is to cut courses that stratify between “regular” and “advanced” and make regular courses rigorous so that all students would have access to advanced instruction. She said that will require teachers to tailor instruction for students who are at different levels and learn at different paces, all within the same classroom.
That’s something some parents said they are skeptical teachers realistically would be able to do.
“I don’t see it as decreasing access,” Irwin said. “But I think that’s where, again, through some of our parent forums and parent meetings … we’ll find a middle ground to that to figure out what would be in the best direction to go, because that’s the last thing we’d want to do is to eliminate or block access to students. That’s not our intention at all.”
Irwin has said that honors and regular courses follow the same curriculum, thus it is redundant to have both kinds of courses. But parents have said they don’t buy that reasoning; honors and advanced courses typically go at a faster pace than regular courses, cover more content and go more in-depth.
Irwin has also said there are still AP course offerings for the honors subjects that were eliminated; the school offers more than 20 AP classes, according to its course catalog.
But some students and parents said that not all students are ready to take many AP courses, which they said put more stress on students. Honors courses give students a chance to get weighted GPA credit they need to be competitive in college admissions, and they can be a stepping stone to help prepare students for the higher rigor of AP classes, students and parents argued.
“They don’t feel ready to take an AP course, but they also feel like a regular course is too slow-paced for them,” said Melbourne Romney, a 16-year-old sophomore who co-organized Wednesday’s protest.
What has compounded frustration from some students and parents is that Irwin did not seek school-wide input before cutting the courses.
Mena and Melbourne said they didn’t find out about the course eliminations until February, when they received the list of courses available for enrollment next school year. Many parents, too, said they didn’t learn of the changes until they were already made.
“No one knew about the new policy for the honors courses until it was actually being enacted,” Melbourne said. “They didn’t ask us if we wanted the new policy or ask us what we really cared about it.”
Mena and Melbourne said they hope Patrick Henry High will let students re-enroll in classes for next year and that the school will restore all the courses, not just the ones that were planned to be axed for next school year.
They said they are also planning another rally before the San Diego Unified School Board’s next meeting, at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the district’s headquarters at 4100 Normal St.