For years, Oyster River High School (ORHS) has prided itself on a robust elective system. Sophomores through seniors have fulfilled their English and social studies requirements with a wide range of heterogeneous, mixed-grade electives created by generations of Humanities teachers. However, ever since core classes were implemented in the sophomore curriculum, many have been left to wonder: what is the future of electives at ORHS?
The change took place last year, when instead of the usual variety of single-semester electives, sophomores were given two choices for a year-long English class and only one option for fulfilling their US History credit. As covered last year in Laura Slama’s article “The New Sophomore Program of Studies,” this change was met with mixed responses from students and teachers. Still, the community believed that the change was temporary and caused by the learning and social-emotional development lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that two brand new sophomore English classes have been developed and the core curriculum has been extended into the 2022-2023 school year, it is becoming clear that the change is not as temporary as many people thought.
Rebecca Noe, ORHS Principal, says the decision to change course offerings for sophomores had already been made before she was hired at the start of last year. Part of the reason for this was Covid. The district was aware that students may have needed to be separated into class-based cohorts to mitigate the spread of the virus, so keeping all sophomores in the same classes rather than mixing with juniors and seniors just made sense. It was also clear to the prior administration that students needed time to make up the social and academic growth they’d missed out on during a year of online school.
Their solution, for the 2021-2022 school year, was a core curriculum. All sophomores took US History instead of registering for alternatives like African American History, Environmental History, or American Studies. Likewise, sophomores could register for the year-long classes Sophomore English with Journalism or Sophomore English with Expository Writing, but could not take other popular electives like Mythology or Poetry and Fiction. Beginning this school year, sophomores have two new literature classes to choose from: Voices and Vision in Literature, or Magic, Monsters, and Mythic Figures. These classes were created through substantial work from the English department and combine elements of several existing electives with entirely new material.
These changes were spurred into action by the pandemic, but conversations about shifting the options for sophomore classes had been happening for years prior.
Reports by the New England Accreditation of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) had pointed out to ORHS administration that the elective system was causing some students to be tracked. In other words, students were placed into classes that adults thought would be harder or easier based on their performance in previous classes. “And that’s not what we promote, right?” says Noe. “We promote a heterogeneous [grouping]. If it’s gonna be an elective system, everybody has choice. But the fact was, that wasn’t happening for sophomores.”
Plus, because junior and senior choices were prioritized in the class selection process, sophomores were not getting a full range of elective options. They were instead sorted into about four different classes, according to Noe.
“Sophomores weren’t actually getting choices. They were either steered towards certain electives or taking electives their friends wanted to take,” Noe says.
These findings were in administrators’ minds already, and when the pandemic hit, another issue was presented. Students were not only set back in learning the skills necessary for their academic classes, but there were also significant drops in student mental health. Introducing year-long classes for sophomores is part of the high school’s response to this.
Noe explains, “a lot of research goes into showing that when kids are in high school, especially the first two years… building relationships with teachers over a longer period of time and having the stability of not as many transitions is really helpful.”
Another issue in the old elective system was continuity in the curriculum, according to Noe. She says that if a student took, for example, Cold War and the 60s in their first semester and then US History 2 during their second semester, they never learned the state requirement of early American history. Additionally, with a new state law requiring all students to pass a US naturalization test to earn their high school diploma, two semesters of US History plus Citizenship Education (a required class for Juniors) cover everything on the test, while other US History electives do not. This was not the reason for eliminating US History electives, but it is a benefit of the new system.
While these are the administration’s reasons for the changes, not everyone entirely agrees with them. “We had, as a department, been clear that we think the elective system is a good system for our sophomores,” says Kara Sullivan, an ORHS English teacher. “We wanted to continue to have them in the elective system after that initial Covid year. But then we were essentially asked to continue that, and when I say asked, I mean we were told that that was what was going to happen.”
Dave Hawley, a social studies teacher who has taught at ORHS for over 20 years, is a proponent of an elective-based system. “Our elective system is what makes us unique,” he says. “That was the foundation of our philosophy for decades, because if you give students choice about what they want to take, they’re going to be more engaged in those experiences. If you have a required course, it automatically has this flavor that it’s required. It’s a whole different animal than when you’ve chosen a class and you have excitement about the choice you made. It makes you more invested.”
“Anytime we see a reduction in that, it’s sad for veteran teachers like myself,” adds Hawley. “I can’t speak for every teacher, but I know the veteran teachers are pretty proud of this system, especially in English and social studies.”
Sullivan, who is in her 22nd year of teaching at ORHS, agrees. She says she and others in her department “feel that, similar to our heterogeneous grouping, oftentimes people are brought up in their learning when they’re challenged.”
Amelia Nott (‘23) was in the last class to have had the old elective options in sophomore year. When she was in tenth grade, she took Debate and Persuasion, Mythology, and the class that is now College Composition for her English credits. Nott loved the variety of electives she took in her sophomore year, saying, “I thought it was really great that I didn’t have to take something that I just didn’t want to do.”
Katie Pescosolido (‘24), says that when she feels more in control of her classes, she is more invested in their outcomes, making her get better grades.
“I feel like I would have done a lot better, grade-wise, if I had been in more classes that I really enjoyed. I definitely understand having a very regulated freshman year because you’re just not used to any of it,” said Pescosolido. “But I think in sophomore year there should at least be more choice than what we had, just to really keep students engaged as they move into the upper levels.”
Sullivan also noticed that many sophomores last year exhibited an immature attitude towards school and weren’t taking it seriously. In the past, when sophomores were mixed in with juniors and seniors in electives, the older students would model positive classroom behaviors and a more mature way of interacting with classroom materials. Sullivan says that this experience of learning from upperclassmen was “more beneficial than having a whole group of sophomores together.”
Paige Stehle (‘25) also misses having an older perspective in her classes. “It would have been nice to have people in other grades because you get different perspectives through talking about different things,” she says.
“Having a more limited choice this past year put more pressure on us to get good classes this year and maybe next year, just because the school has so many options,” Pescosolido adds. “Sometimes it can feel like a lot to have only two years to get what you want and fill in the credits that you need underneath that.”
This has led to another result of the change in sophomore course offerings. Even classes that have never been available to sophomores are experiencing large changes in enrollment.
“One thing I’ve noticed this year is that because sophomores get a literature elective credit, the enrollment in some of the literature classes in the elective system has gone down,” says Sullivan.
Sullivan usually teaches four sections of Literature and the Land each year, a literature class that has only ever been available to juniors and seniors. This year, only two sections worth of students enrolled in the class. This decrease in enrollment was surprising to Sullivan, because that level of change “typically doesn’t happen that abruptly.” While a class might lose one section and stay at that number for a while, such a drastic change is unusual.
Hawley has noticed a similar trend. While the electives Hawley teaches, which are only available to juniors and seniors, haven’t changed significantly in enrollment, enrollment in classes that have historically been offered as US History alternatives has “dropped precipitously.”
Stehle provides a potential explanation for this phenomenon, saying that even though she wanted to take African American History and Environmental History for her US History credit this year, she doesn’t think she will take them in the future because she doesn’t have room in her schedule. “I mean, it’s fine, because it’s not like I’m specifically interested in those classes—I don’t want to do [a career] with those classes. But it would have been nice to have the option to take those instead of just plain US history,” Stehle says.
Noe is aware of this change in enrollment, but asks, “are we looking at electives because people like teaching them, or are we looking at electives that kids want to take?” She points out how little choice students were getting in their sophomore year classes, especially in English, and argues that now, sophomores are getting just as much choice, but with the added stability and support of having one teacher for the full year.
“So, why would we change that, if these are based on what sophomores were already taking and they still get to choose one of those two things? There is choice there. It’s just not this plethora of choices, but they weren’t getting that anyway,” Noe says. “Looking at the data tells me that the choices they have is what they would have gotten… and that this is what’s good for them right now.”
So, will the new core curriculum for sophomores last? That remains to be seen.
“If you’re asking me what my decision will be in this moment, it would continue at least for a couple more years,” Noe says. “There’s a conversation about the elective system for sophomores and year-long classes, but I don’t know of any changes planned right now. That’s not in the works right now.”
– Zoe Selig