Ninth graders at Thomson High will have fewer choices next year, and they'll be grateful in the long run, according to school officials. In spite of a protest from the high school language arts department, school officials are doing away with the lower level English course for ninth grade in an effort to raise the bar of standards.
"We have to eliminate all the choices. We have too many choices," Principal Rudy Falana said. "Sometimes the kids don't know what's good for them until it's too late."
But not everyone is happy with the decision. The nine language arts teachers at the high school sent a letter to Superintendent Mark Petersen and board members asking them to reconsider.
"Teachers will be forced to teach to the 'average' without addressing the needs of the high or low levels," the letter states. "Unfortunately, the two-tiered system will force teachers to work primarily with the struggling learner while the more capable learner will be left behind, unchallenged."
Mr. Falana told the board members at their monthly meeting in February "the decision "wasn't done haphazardly. We've done a lot of research." Mr. Falana said that 98 percent of African American students are taking tech prep courses and then not scoring very high on the standardized tests, even though they make good grades in the course.
"It's not that they can't do the work, it's that we haven't expected them to do it," he said.
The letter from the teachers also states that "our current ninth grade retention rate is the highest among other grade levels," and the new system "can only create greater failure rates and a higher drop-out rate."
But Mr. Falana disagrees. At the meeting, he said that four years ago there were 82 African American males entering the ninth grade at THS, and this year that number has dwindled down to 34 in the senior class.
Mr. Falana also said many freshmen opt for lower level or tech prep courses because they are easier; then later decide they want to attend college, and it's too late to back track.
"As an employer in McDuffie County, many times I've seen adults 30 to 40 years old who wish they'd taken a different route. So, I agree with you whole-heartedly," said Rick McCorkle, a school board member who also is the manager of Bi-Lo in Thomson.
This is not the first time the high school has dropped courses, according to Mr. Falana. He said that the lower level math courses were dropped last year, and resulted in only three students failing the higher courses. The plan for the English courses is to drop the lower level course only for students entering ninth grade and continue with the consecutive grades as those students advance each year.
Dr. Petersen said the state will require the courses be dropped in two years as part of the American Diploma Project, so McDuffie County is just getting prepared.
"So if we're not proactive, then in a couple of years we'll be behind and trying to catch up," Mr. Falana said.
The teachers ask for more time to prove they are already implementing higher standards before they must approach new ones.
"If you continue to do what you've always done, you'll continue to get what you've always gotten," Dr. Petersen said during the school board's recent retreat.