When I first applied to Harvard-Westlake in sixth grade, one of the rumors I heard most frequently was that Harvard-Westlake, or “HW,” stands for “homework” or “hard work.” Harvard-Westlake’s reputation has consistently been one of challenging, rigorous coursework, making students well-acquainted with the late-night homework grind.
The new block schedule, which will be implemented in the 2020-2021 school year, is intended to reduce this pressure by lightening the nightly homework load and allowing students to focus on three to four classes per day, as opposed to seven. The restrictions on Advanced Placement classes, which apply to the class of 2022, were enacted to encourage students to prioritize their academic interests over colleges’ perceived expectations of them. However, the school also possesses a legacy of academic exploration and freedom that may not be possible with these new restrictions.
The school provides students with the unique opportunity to pursue their studies in a diverse selection of AP courses, ranging from more traditional classes, such as AP Spanish and AP Biology, to more specialized courses, such as AP Music Theory and AP Microeconomics/Macroeconomics. For the current school year, Harvard-Westlake offered 28 different AP courses, out of 38 possible AP classes approved by College Board, in its 154-page long school curriculum guide. In comparison, other private schools in the Los Angeles area provide students with a less robust AP course selection: Brentwood School offers 25, Windward School offers 22 and Polytechnic School offers 17.
The new schedule, however, limits students and takes away their freedom as intellectually curious individuals to capitalize on the resources that Harvard-Westlake offers. Under the block schedule, the science department, in particular, will see a drastic reconfiguration of its current curriculum; next year, AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 will be replaced by Physics Honors. In addition, AP Biology will split into two separate classes: Advanced Topics in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Advanced Topics in Evolution and Ecology. In order to fully cover the material for AP Biology required by the College Board, students will need to use one of the spaces reserved for their electives to complete the course. On campus, I have heard students saying, “I won’t have any room in my schedule for [AP Computer Science A], but I really want to take it,” or “there are so many classes, and I really want to take dance, but I can’t.” With only two full-year elective spaces available in each student’s schedule, these slots become precious, already making students question which of their passions they should pursue.
The issue becomes more complicated for students whose academic interests span over multiple subjects, as AP limits force them to choose which to delve deeper into. However, even for students whose interests are concentrated in one discipline, the AP limits present certain challenges. From seventh grade, students choose specific tracks that determine the classes they will take for the rest of their high school careers. Many of these paths end in AP courses, particularly in English, world languages and math. Students may, therefore, feel compelled to finish their track by taking the AP class, even if they are not invested in the subject, preventing them from pursuing other AP courses that they are more passionate about.
AP courses allow students to showcase the breadth of their knowledge on an objective scale that can be compared to other high schoolers from different educational backgrounds across the nation. Harvard-Westlake has consistently distinguished itself from other institutions in Los Angeles and in the United States in the resources it provides its students to succeed. Its core mission statement, spoken at each convocation and ingrained into its student body, states “the joyful pursuit of educational excellence” as one of its values.
Academic excellence is a vague term. However, a Google search indicates that academic excellence is not only defined by “good grades” or “hard-working students,” but also through the opportunity for students to pursue their interests and take academic risks. The AP limits and block schedule may benefit students by curbing stress, but perhaps we should ask ourselves a more fundamental question: are these initiatives consistent with what our school stands for?