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District Makes Changes to Middle School De-Leveling Proposal (VIDEO)

Changes to math would now be staggered over a three-year period. District administration also answered questions from the public and heard comments.

The South Orange-Maplewood School District administration unveiled changes in the timetable for advancing de-leveling in the middle schools at its third and final special meeting on middle school restructuring (and first special meeting on high school restructuring) on Wednesday night.

These changes seemed to signal, as stated by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Osborne, the "ongoing conversation" that district administration is having with members of the community on new proposals for restructuring at the high school and the middle schools.

Previous proposals to simultaneously reduce the number of levels in math from 3 to 2 in 6th, 7th and 8th grade for the 2012-13 school year have been abandoned. The district is now proposing to stagger the changes over three years. Under the amended plan, changes to 6th grade math would be implemented in September 2012, changes to 7th grade math in September 2013, and changes to 8th grade math in September 2014.

Details of the changes can be found in the pdf attached to this story or on the district website here.

During his opening comments, Osborne also stated, "Contrary to much public discussion, we have never and are not recommending the removal of honors math."

Unlike the previous two meetings, the meeting ran long and the board members and district staff seemed to make pains to read pre-submitted questions from the public verbatim. In addition, the District's new Director of Strategic Communications Suzanne Turner read 11 questions from the notecards submitted at the event. Approximately 80 community members attended to listen. About 10 made public comments toward the end of the meeting.

Some questions focused on professional development, others on data. Some were concerned about high-achieving students, others about special education students. Questioners were interested in how success of the proposed for the middle schools would be measured, if training would disrupt next year's 6th graders' learning, and how much it would cost.

The discussion was wide-ranging and exhaustive.

Some answers, comments and discussions included:

  • Osborne stated that "de-leveling itself will never close the achievement gap." He said that a multitude of initiatives were needed to do so and cited full-day kindergarten, reading and writing supports in early grades, professional development, a strategic approach to academic interventions, summer programs and more as part of a larger strategy to close the gap between white and black students' performance.
  • Joseph Uglialoro, South Orange Middle School Principal, said that IB would change little if anything about how special education students are scheduled and supported and might even expand services and supports for special education students.
  • Osborne said that the success of IB would be measured by college success. Markers on the way would include courses taken and test scores.
  • The cost of IB was again addressed. Maplewood Middle School Principal Jeff Truppo said that the biggest costs are the support for students and teacher. He said that, contrary to what has been reported, no school in Cherry Hill had dropped the program solely due to cost, but due to other, more complex reasons germain to their local situation.
  • Truppo said that he and Uglialoro would be visisting an IB school in Cherry Hill next week, where a "robust" IB program had been in place for 10 years.
  • Truppo also said that he had looked at the number of times middle schools teachers had been pulled from classrooms this year and said he felt confident that "when I speak to IB professionals, we are not talking about more time out" of the classroom for teacher training. "We can fit IB training into the time we have if we re-allocate the time. We're looking at staffing meetings differently."
  • Osborne again deflected criticisms about data and de-leveling. "The decision to move forward is a data-based decision," said Osborne. "We have years of data showing students in low level placements staying in low levels and not being college-ready." Osborne said that the question of de-leveling had been discussed "over decades." "Sorting students as early as 11 or 12 year old locks too many students out."
  • As for the 7th grade data, Osborne maintained that "it does indeed tell a positive story." Osborne said that the district never maintained that it would close the achievement gap in one year. "It's just one year of data." He said he found it "most heartening that there are kids in the Level 4 class in 8th grade now who wouldn't have had that opportunity." He contended that the end of micro-leveling in 6th grade math likewise had not negatively impacted high-achieving students, saying that "we had a 9% increase in advanced proficient in math" on NJASK scores for the grade.
  • On the high school level, math and science supervisor for grades 6-12 Alan Levin assured parents that he anticipated more students in honors biology due to the a summer step-up program to be offered for rising 9th grade this summer.
  • Dr. Chistopher Preston, supervisor of social studies grades 6-12, defended the larger scale de-leveling of social studies by saying that the nature of social studies dictated the "widest range of perspectives in the room."  He also argued that the disparities in levels is not that great. "Will high fliers education be compromised? I would like to err on the side of giving more kids an opportunity," he said.
  • CHS Principal Dr. Lovie Lilly assured questioners that the high school's profile with college admissions offices was being strengthened. She also noted that the district's move to make the PSAT test available to all 10th and 11th graders had identified "some students in level 2 who are college ready."
  • Levin talked about professional development of teachers, emphasizing professional learning communties as the major factor in the high school that would help teachers prepare for the new course structures.
  • Osborne said that there was "no scenario to eliminate AP offerings" at the high school. "To the contrary, we worked to increase access to AP" and are "seeking to expand AP."
  • Osborne did say that the current proposals are not the district's "end state" overall. He explained that, while they are the end state for Social Studies and English Language Arts, the hope is that for math and science, with changes at the elementary and middle school levels, more and more students will meet criteria for higher level courses in high school. He said that the decision on whether to extend MYP through 9th and 10th grades will be made in 2014, and that the decision on whether to add the IB Diploma Programme as an option for 11th and 12th grades would be made in 2015. The district will determine whether any further adjustments in academic placement are warranted at that time, using what has been learned during IB Middle Years Programme implementation in the middle schools.

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