Middle ground eyed in D86 science battle

New physics-first sequence remains, but students still can take biology-chemistry-physics

Hinsdale High School District 86 students will have some latitude in choosing science classes starting in the 2022-23 school year under a compromise plan.

After more than two hours of discussion on the contentious issue of science sequencing at the July 22 meeting, board members came to consensus. They directed administrators to plan to offer the previously approved physics-chemistry-biology model while also allowing students to take the newly developed courses in the traditional biology-first order.

“I want to see students at both schools be able to make an individualized decision to optimize their opportunities in science,” board member Debbie Levinthal said in supporting the dual pathways.

Under the so-called modified plan, students can choose the new sequence of Physics in the Universe, Chemistry of Earth Systems and Biology of the Living Earth, or instead start with BOTLE or AP Physics I. Under this plan, freshman and juniors could be in the same class.

The previous board had approved the new sequence in an effort to align the two high schools’ science curriculums while meeting the criteria of the state’s new science standards. Hinsdale South has followed the physics-first model for a decade, but it would be a new approach at Hinsdale Central.

The “physics first” approach became a lightning rod in April’s election, and the four board members elected all expressed resistance to the sequence change and the increased integration of earth science.

Board member Jeff Waters had asked the administration to explore the cost of preserving the existing science classes alongside the new classes, saying he is concerned about lack of rigor of the classes and the limitations of a single science path.

“The genesis of my concern ... is the de-contenting that I believe to exist when I see Physics in the Universe as the sole offering,” he said.

Administrators reported that model, identified as Option 3, would cost $1.6 million a year due to staffing needed and the high likelihood of smaller class sizes as students are spread among more classes.

Levinthal said for some students, taking biology freshman year is preferable option.

But proponents of the new sequence say earth science-related material will comprise only about 20 to 30 percent of the content and that the courses have been created to build on concepts from one year to the next in concert with state standards.

“The idea here is that the science teachers have created a build-upon schedule based on over a decade’s worth of experience at Hinsdale South,” said board member Eric Held. “By recommending a linked sequence, we’re saying this is a pedagogically sound order of study for the students.”

Hinsdale South Principal Arwen Pokorny-Lyp said her school has seen strong results from its physics-first experience as it optimizes instruction by eliminating redundancies and showing connections between the subjects.

“Our AP Bio scores are higher than they were previously when we did not do physics-chem-bio,” she said. “No one feels that opportunities were taken away from students.”

Lower class sizes could result from the expanded offerings, administrators reported, estimating that every additional section below the district’s class size parameters would cost about $20,000. At Hinsdale South, that would mean the addition of staff for AP Physics 1, Biology of the Living Earth Honors and AP Physics C-M.

Board member Kathleen Hirsman, a supporter of the new sequence, voiced discomfort at making financial decisions without the counsel of Chief Financial Officer Josh Stephenson, who was absent. She also vented her frustration at the protracted discussion.

“We need to figure out where we’re going. The previous board already determined where we’re going, and if this board wants to make a change, I need to hear where we’re going,” Hirsman said.

Board President Terri Walker suggested tabling the issue until September, and Superintendent Tammy Prentiss said teachers could again present the rationale behind the new sequence.

Chris Covino, assistant superintendent of curriculum, said new curriculum would need to be developed even for the traditional courses. He expressed strong reluctance to further burden teachers.

“(The teachers) know what they’re doing, and they have a designed a curriculum based on the Illinois Science Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards,” Covino said. “There are no other standards that are used, no matter if we do BCP or PCB.”

Additional time and funding also will be needed to write and align Biology of the Living Earth Honors and AP Physics 1 curriculums under the modified plan.

The board is expected to receive a presentation about the earth science standards at its Oct. 14 meeting and will discuss recommendations for the program of studies, including the science sequence, during its meeting on Oct. 28.

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean