Honors math, reading will be added in Rancho Santa Fe School District

The RSF School District board met on Dec. 9.
(Karen Billing)

The Rancho Santa Fe School District board unanimously voted to bring in a new middle school honors math program starting in the 2023-24 school year. The program aims to challenge high-achieving students and better prepare students for high school.

At its Dec. 9 meeting, the board also approved a new honors reading program for the elementary school level that will begin in the fall.

The honors math program will be a “substantially different curriculum”, offering more depth and complexity, rather than just teaching a grade above as the school’s existing advanced math track offers. The curriculum is yet to be determined.

With the changes, each middle school grade will have three level options for math. If students pass still-to-be-determined assessments, there is an opportunity for three honors grade skips. Starting in the coming spring, Rowe fifth-grade students will be assessed for initial placement in honors math in middle school.

“We want to make a thoughtful placement,” Superintendent Donna Tripi said. “We want to work with teachers and parents together on what really is in the best interest of our kids.”

A school site council made up of parents studied advanced learning opportunities at Rowe for over a year. For some parents, the frustration around the school’s math program was six or seven years in the making—some said their students were not prepared when they got to high school and parents wanted to see more academic rigor.

After receiving feedback from the school site council, in June the board gave direction to staff for the development of an honors math program to be delivered by January 2023, aiming for the new middle school principal to be a part of the conversation. Rowe Middle School Principal Joel Spengler joined the district in August and was given the task of developing the program, tapping into his experience as a math coach, math resource teacher and math consultant in public schools in New York and California.

Newly-elected board President John Tree said the proposed math and reading honors programs deliver on what the board has been asking for. He said the next step will be to communicate with parents the ways in which they are working to “make R. Roger Rowe great again”: “This matches my expectations of what R. Roger Rowe would be like.”

“I’m really happy with this and I thank the school site council for their hard work,” echoed Vice President Rosemarie Rohatgi. “Finally, it’s here.”

What the board approved on Dec. 9 is really the framework for the honors program, it still needs to be filled with a strong curriculum and assessments. During the 8:30 a.m meeting, many teachers were in class but teacher Steve Rossier was present to read a letter from middle school teachers about their “grave concerns” about how the process has been handled.

“The plan is not the result of collaborative work with the teachers. Current effective practices will be deleted. Real and measurable learning outcomes have not been identified. Methods to measure effectiveness have not been discussed. Mitigating possible negative outcomes such as tracking, underachievement and loss of confidence have not been addressed,” Rossier read. “This proposal may sound good on paper and in short term may satisfy those that have been asking for this change. However, in the long term the plan will not address the real needs of our unique and vibrant school community.”

With the board’s unanimous decision to move forward, Clerk Annette Ross said she was concerned about the teachers not being on board with the program and that they did not feel included.

Tripi said in meeting with teachers, they felt that they are already differentiating within the classroom to meet every student’s needs. As the teachers’ letter stated, they understand that an honors program would offer some students additional educational opportunities but they are looking for a collaborative, data-driven plan that promotes excellence for all students.

The honors program will be a complicated change and there will be challenges, including scheduling and some staffing implications. According to Tripi, teachers will be a part of the process of selecting curriculum and assessments: “We’ll get through it,” she said.

Tripi said one of the biggest benefits of this process has been becoming more aligned with the San Dieguito Union High School District as a feeder school. Over the last month, San Dieguito district staff and teachers worked with the district as they developed their plan and Rowe teachers will join San Dieguito teachers on professional development with the San Diego County Office of Education in February.

In his comments, Tree said one month ago he had no confidence that the board would have something to approve that day. At board meetings in October and November, the board stressed the urgency for this program to the staff, particularly Spengler. Tree was very critical of his November presentation and said that he got the impression it was not a priority. Spengler could not yet share details of the proposed program as it was still in development but stated that it was his priority.

During public comment on Dec. 9, parent Marsi Hauenstein said she was disappointed by how Tree treated Spengler at the last meeting. She felt that Tree had “degraded”, “humiliated” and “bullied” him.

“The way you handled it goes against everything we try to teach our kids at our school how to treat other people, it made me sick,” Hauenstein said. She said that frustrations with his performance could have better been discussed in a closed session.

Following the public comment period, Tree offered an apology for his tone at the last meeting but not for the content of his disappointment in Spengler’s presentation.

Spengler was not present at the Dec. 9 meeting and Tripi made the honors presentation. The middle school principal position was listed on the agenda for review at the closed session agenda on Dec. 12.