High Expectations for Grade 9s at Westview
By Louise Brown
For the first time in 20 years, students starting Grade 9 at Westview Centennial Secondary School won’t be able to take English at the Applied level.
They’ll all take Academic – and Westview teacher Kulsoom Anwer couldn’t be happier.
At last, all incoming students will get the same taste of university-bound learning to start high school, she says, while their teenaged brains are still growing. No longer will any Grade 9 student be steered into an Applied English course that closes doors to university and a world of opportunity, based simply on how they did in grade school.
“Frankly, kids were often misplaced into Applied on the grounds of how engaged and compliant they were – their work habits, not their potential,” explains Anwer, Assistant Curriculum Leader for English and Literacy at Westview Centennial SS, in the city’s northwest corner. She’s taught many students in Applied who should have been taking Academic, and in some cases, switched them out with “huge success.
“With all we know about the adolescent brain, we should realize kids’ work habits take time to develop,” says Anwer. “They deserve a year or two more before having to decide on an educational pathway. Grade 9 is too early to close doors.”
Which is why Applied Grade 9 courses are starting to be phased out across the Toronto District School Board. Originally meant to just be more hands-on than their Academic counterparts, studies now show Applied courses limit options for many young teens, too many of them students of colour, students from low-income families and students with learning disabilities.
Westview and 15 other Toronto high schools will be among the first to stop offering Applied English, and in some cases, Applied science and geography too. It’s part of the TDSB’s bold push towards equity and ensuring all students are given the chance and support they need to succeed.
At these schools, all Grade 9 English students will be in Academic classes with a rigorous vibe where teachers set the bar high and most kids expect to go on to higher education.
Westview began the transition this year by moving the few remaining Applied students into “mixed ability” classrooms with their Academic peers. Next year, there will be no Applied students.
“Applied wasn’t working,” says Anwer. “Unfortunately, it became a place where there was nobody to look to for a different way to ‘do school.’ This approach in Grade 9 will immerse students in an environment where the majority are headed to university. The high expectations will sink in through a lot of peer influence.”
Moreover, English is an easy subject to provide only the Academic pathway, she explains. The goal is to teach students the skills of literacy – how to decode language, comprehend meaning, predict what might follow and connect ideas to the larger world – but these can be taught using a range of texts to suit students of different abilities.
“Teachers already are moving away from using a ‘class novel,’ so they can appeal to different students’ interests and ability,” says Anwer. She often gives her own class five novels of different levels of complexity, from which each must choose three they’d like to read. Students are guaranteed to be assigned one of their top three, then Anwer puts those doing the same novel into small “book clubs” that study the work together.
Offering only the Academic pathway doesn’t mean “dumbing down” the curriculum, she insists. Good teachers have long let stronger students work at a faster pace on more challenging material.
But what about students who struggled even in Applied? Westview still will run intensive support programs for teens with special needs like developmental delays and mild intellectual disabilities. But in the interest of equity, fewer students with learning disabilities will be placed in programs that remove them from their peers, says Glenn Smith, Westview’s Curriculum Leader for Special Education. They will take Academic English, but not until after they have had a fall “locally developed” bridging course to help build their skills; Smith calls it “a booster.
“About one in four incoming Grade 9 students needs a little extra support, so they’ll do this course in first semester and take the Academic English in second semester,” Smith says. Westview tried this new kind of support last fall with about 60 incoming Grade 9s in English and math, with encouraging results.
Kulsoom Anwer believes most Grade 9 Westview students are happy about Academic being the only option. “Remember, they’ve just come from eight years of a single stream in their education. Most of them will be happy not to be cut off suddenly from the rest of their friends.”