In which direction should Harvard-Westlake go?

The constant pursuit of excellence and the successful placement of our graduates at some of the most competitive colleges in the nation has long been the essence of Harvard-Westlake’s identity. The majority of our students and parents choose our school because of its quality college preparatory programs and extracurricular activities. However, with a new president, the critical question is: what direction will the school choose to go?

The workload committee is recommending limiting the number of core subjects and extracurriculars a student can take to reduce workload and stress. The committee has also suggested extending the school year and reducing vacation time in order to expand days dedicated to service and other extracurricular activities. Several top administrators have proposed the elimination of the AP program and semester exams. While our students want changes, the data from the survey does not support the interpretation made by the committee or administration.

One of the few positive correlations from the data, as described to me by a committee member, is that students taking more AP courses report higher levels of academic enjoyment. By contrast, one could infer that students struggling academically or unable to find their own niche are the most stressed and least satisfied. The crucial question is: how can we offer ALL our students a path to excel and reach their full potential without lowering standards?

Introducing multiple tracks beginning at the middle school level in all academic departments could accommodate the diverse set of backgrounds, gifts, abilities and ambitions of our students. This flexible structure could include regular, honors and accelerated tracks, as well as offer more rigorous and advanced courses beginning in the Middle School. The math department, and to a lesser extent, the science department are the only academic departments that have multiple tracks since seventh or ninth grade. It is not a coincidence that these departments have almost no “transition problems” between ninth and 10th grades.

Similarly, these departments that track earlier are also the ones preferred by our male students (60% of the total students taking APs), who overall, are a “happier” group than our female students. By contrast, our female students, tend to prefer the liberal arts departments (English, history, world languages, arts) in more similar proportions than male students. Unfortunately, most of the liberal arts do not currently offer early tracking. Consequently, these students do not have the opportunity to take advanced classes or choose between honors and regular tracks until 10th or 11th grade, which may be one of the causes of ninth to tenth grade “transition problems” and the lower level of academic satisfaction among female students.

Multiple tracks in ALL departments would allow most of our students to move faster and reach AP and other advanced courses in their areas of strength by 10th or 11th grade. These expanded opportunities would allow other students to move through the curriculum at a pace more suited to their needs, interests and motivations. Under this flexible structure, some students may choose to load up and thrive with many core subjects, while others may find their niche in electives and extracurriculars. ALL our students need more opportunities to thrive within the school rather than limit their choices further by cutting their options.

The administration and the Faculty Academic Committee’s decision to allow each department to choose whether to drop its AP program or continue is just setting the stage for an eventual phasing out of APs at our school.

Our AP program has been one of the sources of strength and excellence at our school compared to other schools nationwide. In fact, the opportunity for students to have several tracks and choose a variety of classes, including AP and post-AP courses, adds richness and depth to Harvard-Westlake’s educational experience in the context of a more competitive and global world.

Furthermore, the recent pilot program approved by FAC to move semester exams before winter vacation will negatively impact AP practice exams by shortening the exam time. Students do not want to extend the academic year or add days of service beyond our current community service requirement. Any service beyond that should be voluntary by those advocating it and on their own time. Instead, beginning school a week earlier, ending it a week earlier and reducing the review days to the first four days after winter break would provide extra teaching days and several three day weekends. This can be done without extending the academic year or disrupting our current semester and AP practice exams.

Careful consideration should be made before recommending, adopting and implementing policies that could negatively impact our school tradition of academic excellence. A flexible multiple track structure beginning earlier and strengthening our AP program could unleash our students’ and our school’s full potential.