Before the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, students were offered a wide variety of courses in the Oyster River High School program of studies. This year, sophomores are more limited in their elective options than any other sophomore class.
Last winter, the Oyster River High School administration asked each academic department to brainstorm ways to shift their curriculum to help rising sophomores fill in the gaps and “unfinished learning” resulting from remote learning. To cope with this unfinished learning, sophomores are experiencing a new program of studies specific to their class, which is in effect through the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years. Designed to give students a foundation in core subjects, a shared common experience, and further preparation for the elective system, the new sophomore program of studies aims to help with the social and educational transition to high school. The addition of three required sophomore core classes were introduced to the program of studies and has been met with mixed feelings from students and teachers.
In past years, rising sophomores were allowed the opportunity to choose their courses in the elective system after taking the required core classes of Essentials of English, World Cultures, and Biology 9 during their freshman year. However, this year, instead of signing up for specialized elective courses such as Mythology or Environmental History for their core credits, sophomores were obligated to take the year-long classes of Sophomore English, United States History, and NextGen Science. Kimberley Sekera, an Oyster River High School school counselor, said that the goal of implementing these classes is “to have another year, now that we’re all in, of shared academic experiences for students [so that they] can work on the academic skills for success across three core academic areas.”
Administrators concluded that one of the most important reasons to temporarily change the program of studies related to handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Two school counselors, Jason Baker and Sekera, stated that a major goal was to cohort lowerclassmen (grades 9 and 10) and upperclassmen (grades 11 and 12) in their classes to make it easier if circumstances demanded the change back to a half-in model. Cohorting upper and lowerclassmen would cause less overlap in classes and allow in-person learning time to be split between the two groups, if necessary.
The changes in the program of studies varies with each department, and some were already planning changes, but they were all asked by the administration to shift their curriculum this year to account for the gaps in learning and relationship building for sophomores. In addition to making sure that students have a foundation in their core classes, the new courses aim to benefit students in other ways. “It’s really to give students another full year experience with a teacher because last year was so disjointed. [It’s so] students [can] have that continuity of the same teacher,” said Sekera.
Teachers benefit from this continuity, as well. Matthew Pappas, head of the Oyster River High School social studies department, said that teachers “are able to keep the same students all year long. They get to know [the students] better and get to know their learning abilities better.”
Though intentions were positive for the new program of studies, there were concerns raised by students about the change. With the three new core classes, a year-long math credit, a year-long language credit, and graduation requirements, sophomores have a maximum of two elective credits of their choice. In comparison to past years, some students criticize this model as restrictive. Nic Brown (‘24) said that “we didn’t have a lot of options to choose our classes. [Administration] basically just picked all of them for us.”
This means that students have less time overall to take electives that they want to take. “I have to rethink how badly I actually want to take these classes and [if] there are other classes that I would rather take… Now the years to fit that in [have] gone down, so there is less time to accomplish what I’d like to do,” said Ella Higginson (‘24).
Grace Webb (‘23) said that she appreciated the opportunity to choose the classes she had in her sophomore year because it allowed her to discover and explore interests such as environmental issues. “I really liked Environmental History because I’m passionate about sustainability. It was very interesting to me and I feel like I definitely enjoyed it more than I would if I just took a basic history class.” She continued saying, “you can choose classes you like which makes it more engaging and interesting so you want to do the work. It’s not just ‘ugh, I have to do this work for this class.’ It makes me more excited to go to school and be in those classes.”
Higginson agreed with Webb and said, “I kind of understand [the change], but at the same time I don’t like it because if you were picking classes that you enjoy I feel like kids would be more willing to apply themselves.”
Though there are some concerns around the sophomore program of studies, students expressed some of the positive outcomes from the new courses. Webb expressed that she appreciates that the new program of studies includes analysis of literature. “It would have been nice to read some of the classics or good literature that I haven’t read in any of my classes,” she said.
Jennifer Weeks, co-head for the Oyster River High School English department, observed in her Sophomore English class that students are benefiting socially from a sophomore-only course. “I think it’s good for social reasons. They actually know what each other looks like and they’re building their friend groups. All that stuff that happens freshman year is happening for them this year. I don’t know if that would have happened without [a class like this],” she said.
However, Pappas proposed that sophomores could have also benefited from the diversity of grade levels that exists in other classes in the high school. “Having mixed grade levels in a class provides a unique dynamic. Older students tend to model better behavior that younger students will typically emulate… Older students tend to be more mature and stick to deadlines,” he said. For more information about student behavior this year, look into “Changes in Student Behavior at ORHS” by Lauren Hoppler.
Teachers have mixed feelings about the changes in the program of studies. A curriculum change for them means adapting to new schedules and creating new content for their class. On one hand, the English department faced the challenge of putting together a brand new curriculum for sophomores.
Weeks said that Sophomore English is “meant to be more of an extension of what kids [did in] Essentials of English… Our idea is that we would do more practice, focus more on themes, and more on different kinds of literature.” Sophomores have the choice of taking either Sophomore English with Expository Writing or Sophomore English with Journalism Writing. In both courses, the first semester concentrates on literary analysis and comparative literature, where the second either focuses on expository writing or journalism.
Though teachers in the English department found creating new content for the course to be challenging, Weeks felt optimistic about the change. “I was excited to be able to create something new, so I was okay with that,” she said.
Creating a new course was not something unheard of in the science department; they had already been discussing the possibility of making changes to their curriculum even before the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, NextGen Science replaced the Earth Science Systems course offered to sophomores in past years. “The content is similar [and] it’s all based on the earth and earth-based systems. We’re all trying to also prioritize how fundamental chemistry and physics come into play within the context of earth,” said Jon Bromley, a NextGen science teacher. This is with the intent of preparing students for the physics and chemistry classes that they would take the following years.
In the past, rising sophomores were typically presented with the two options of taking Chemistry or Earth Science Systems for their science credit. As opposed to prior years, Bromley said, “we’re trying to encourage every student to take [NextGen]… If you don’t take NextGen, then you’re missing some core foundational scientific thinking if you jump to Chemistry.”
Unlike the Earth Science Systems curriculum, Bromley said that “one of the differences is the way that, as teachers, we’re trying to work together to be much more consistent in our approach. One of the goals for the high school, in our department, and in the district is to increase consistency between commonly taught courses. [This is] so that we’re giving an experience to kids that is meaningful and everyone is more connected.” Bromley expressed that he appreciates this change and believes that it is a step forward in the science department.
The social studies department faced similar challenges in changing their curriculum as the other two departments, but they did not necessarily have to create content for the new course. Open to sophomores, the United States History course combines the content in the semester-long classes of U.S. History I and U.S. History II into a year-long experience. These two courses, along with American Studies, were removed from the program of studies.
Many students were upset that American Studies was no longer offered as an elective. Pappas said that the decision was made by administration and was due in part to the demand for faculty to teach the new United States History and Sophomore English courses introduced to the curriculum. “There’s certainly some scheduling challenges there because it involves two teacher’s schedules… Having two different teachers in the classroom teaching the material is of huge benefit and I hope that soon we will be able to offer it again,” said Pappas. For more information about the decision to remove American Studies from the curriculum, check out Hannah Muessig’s article “Bring Back American Studies.”
Now that freshmen and sophomores will have had a full year of in-person learning and continuity, hopefully a sense of normalcy is returning to Oyster River High School. As of now, the current Program of Studies is expected to continue through the 2022-2023 school year.