Should my Child Take Honors Classes?



    In many ways, life for our kids is very different from what it was for us 20-odd years ago – just think of text messaging, Google and iTunes. Yet one thing has remained virtually unchanged: Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school. 
    What has changed in the last few years is the scope of advanced study programs. Formerly relegated to high school, there is now much more differentiation at the primary level, with gifted programs often beginning as early as 2nd or 3rd grade. It is important to understand, however, that gifted does not necessarily equate to academic achievement. Although some parents think their child must be in a gifted program to get into the best colleges, this is simply not true. Gifted students have very unique needs, which in some instances entail rather the opposite of being pushed academically. 
    But there has also been a trend towards more academic advancement for high-achieving students in middle school. Blue Valley, like a number of other local districts, recently introduced “plus” math classes for 7th and 8th graders and allows qualified students to advance a grade. A few school districts, such as Lee’s Summit and Shawnee Mission, where the rigorous International Baccalaureate Program (IB) is available in high school, offer a wide-ranging 7th and 8th grade advanced study curriculum in all core subjects. 
    Originally, middle schools came into existence in the 1970s with the very idea of being more nurturing than high schools to service the unique needs of young adolescents. But ever since, the “nurture vs. academics” debate has continued. “Middle schools have rightly resisted the push from high schools to become more like them,” says Curt Johnson, an educator in the Blue Valley School District for more than 30 years. “What works for a 16-year-old is often not appropriate developmentally at the middle school level,” he says. Yet he concedes that the new math classes have met an important need for faster-paced instruction and have so far proved a positive experience. 
    If you have braved the middle school years as a parent, you have likely experienced the dilemma between academic rigor and adolescent needs first hand. The years of 7th and 8th grades in particular are difficult. There may be as much value in stepping back and ceding your child the necessary space to discover who he wants to be – often at the expense of good grades – as there is in what is actually taught academically. Pushing your child into an advanced class at this age may completely backfire. 
    For Felice Azorsky, whose daughter will go to Shawnee Mission East High School next year, this has not been the case. She has been satisfied with the advanced social studies and English classes available at their middle school. But she acknowledges the danger of overdoing it by rushing through. “There are many kids at our school who take advanced science and math at the high school. I actually wish they offered more activities like intramural sports and more after school clubs,” she says. 
    Susan McDaniel does not see a need for many advanced courses in middle school. Her daughter is now a sophomore in the Blue Springs School District, where middle school advancement options are limited to math. “Getting accustomed to changing classes every period and dealing with those ever ranging hormones was enough,” she says. Her daughter was sufficiently challenged to make for an easy transition to high school, where she is now right on track in her AP European History class, even though she has had to work much harder than ever before. 
    In the end, it may be a good idea to let your child try out an advanced middle school class where available. But if it proves too hard, or your school doesn’t offer one, don’t fret. There is still plenty of time for college preparation in high school, where even a regular curriculum provides ample opportunity to hone independent study and research skills. But there, honors classes do play an important role. Colleges will look closely at content and challenge level, not just GPA. In addition, a rigorous AP curriculum can yield up to a year’s worth of college credits and provide substantial savings. 
    The real value of a challenging high school curriculum, according to Stan Elliott, Lee’s Summit School District secondary instruction assistant superintendent, lies in the challenge itself. Lee’s Summit features three of Kansas City’s nine high schools with IB certification, a worldwide program known for its high academic standards. “Our program prepares students well for wherever they want to go in life,” says Elliott. 
    Brad Kincheloe, principal of Park Hill High School, is similarly committed to challenging his students. As a result, Park Hill has more students enrolled in AP classes than any other school in the KC area. “It’s a myth that AP is for the best and the brightest,” says Kincheloe. “In reality, all college-bound kids need to gain this experience while still living at home; after all, the next year they’ll be taking 10 of those classes.” 
    As parents, we sometimes do well by stepping back and looking at the big picture – education – rather than getting caught up in the rat race of AP, ACT and SAT. Kincheloe has a great way of summing this up: “A good high school makes sure that its students are accepted into college; a great high school makes sure that its students are successful in college.”

Eva Melusine Thieme is a freelance writer and lives in Overland Park with her husband and four children.

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