English and social studies teachers from Niles North and Niles West high schools crowded into the Niles Township High School District 219 school board meeting Dec. 17 to protest plans to combine their two departments into one humanities department starting in the fall of 2015.
The goal, said Superintendent Nanciann Gatta, is to make sure social studies teachers focus on improving students’ reading and writing skills in their classes, just as English teachers do.
In the end, the board unanimously agreed to call for a humanities department, under one department director, with separate divisions for English and history.
The proposal was one of many included in this year’s annual review of programs and has been listed as a recommendation since August, but it has been overshadowed by discussions about changing the school calendar and eliminating the honors track to encourage more students to take Advanced Placement courses. Neither of those proposals were approved for next year, although the calendar will change in 2014-2015.
Niles West social studies teacher Chris Schwarz said it wasn’t until the school board spent eight minutes out of a more than three-hour meeting discussing a combined humanities department on Nov. 26 that teachers understood the proposal.
“It was clear that there were some serious misunderstandings and a lack of information about what we do in social studies on a daily basis,” Schwarz said, noting teachers already teach literacy skills. However, they were especially dismayed by a comment referring to history as a series of “discrete bits of information.”
“Content is paramount,” he said. “Our students need to be able to put their world in context. And I gotta tell you that sometimes dates do matter.”
Gatta agreed that content matters, but said that good literacy helps students learn content.
“When you show them how to read as a historian reads, they learn how to read better, they learn how to write better and they learn the content better,” she said.
Other English and social studies teachers – all signers of a one-page statement protesting the combination of the department – also spoke to the board, saying that teachers from the two departments do collaborate, but that there are different literacy standards for history and for English, and that they should remain separate departments.
Board member Jeffrey Greenspan suggested that the proposal be amended to call for a humanities department, with separate divisions of English and history, but other board members said they would prefer to leave the proposal flexible as teachers and administrators work out what a combined department would look like.
In a back-and-forth discussion that at times became heated, Schwarz asked why the district is pressing for a change when teachers from both departments already teach literacy skills and collaborate.
Gatta and board members said that 78 percent of District 219 graduates who attend Oakton Community College need to take remedial reading classes, and more than half the district’s graduates are not ready for college English.
“We need drastic action,” said school board member Ruth Klint.
She then asked why the English and social studies teachers do not want to coexist under a single humanities umbrella.
Schwarz said the teachers wanted to be sure they would still have separate English and social studies classes, taught by teachers who have expertise in those areas as well as in English.