President Romberg and Members of the Board of Education:
STAGE (Supporters of Talented and Gifted Education) learned of the staff layouts and proposed changes to enrichment and LEAP through our network of contacts. A meeting was arranged the next day (March 28) attended by STAGE President Jay Fisher and STAGE Communications Director Jen Hajer with district administrators Tim Wierenga and Kitty Ryan as well as the district’s communications consultant Faith Behr. The discussion at this meeting coupled with the subsequent Talk203 and FAQs sent out from the district provide the basis for our knowledge about the district’s plans. We also reached out via STAGE email to our 1400 subscribers, Facebook followers and our personal networks to solicit parental input about these changes. Although some STAGE families also have children who have benefitted from the LEAP program, based on STAGE’s focus as an organization, we will primarily address the changes as they impact gifted and academically talented students.
STAGE is not wedded to the current delivery mechanism for elementary enrichment in the District. It is an imperfect model, and we have on many occasions communicated our concerns and suggestions for improvements during the quarterly meetings STAGE’s President has with Jennifer Hester, Tim Wierenga and Debbie Cota (as well as their predecessors). Moreover, STAGE supports the concept of differentiation and believes it can be a powerful tool.
However, STAGE’s Executive Board has many questions and concerns about the proposed plan that it believes must be addressed to ensure an approach that effectively meets the needs of the gifted and academically talented learners in our elementary schools.
The presentation to the Board of Education has not yet been made publicly available on BoardDocs. We hope through the presentation and the subsequent Board discussion, the following questions will be answered:
1. At the March 28 meeting, STAGE was informed for the first time about the pilot program that was implemented this past year at Ranch View Elementary School. However, district administrators provided few details. For what grades and at what staffing levels was this pilot program implemented at Ranch View? From our research, it appears that every K-2 classroom at Ranch View had a dedicated classroom assistant. It also appears that all reading specialists, LEAP instructors, and the enrichment instructor remained employed for a total of 12-14 assistants at Ranch View. Under the district’s plan assuming similar enrollment, this would be reduced to only three instructional aides serving the K-5 school (one assistant for each grade level K-2 as Ranch View has three classrooms per grade and no assistants proposed for grades 3-5). Our questions:
a. What metrics were used to judge success of the pilot, and did it include parent feedback?
b. What were the key factors in determining a staff reduction of approximately 75% from the pilot to the proposed model?
c. Would it be prudent to phase in this model at one or two schools next year using the actual conditions proposed in the new learning support model with defined metrics to better judge the efficacy before rolling it out at all schools?
2. In the district FAQs, the administration writes that this is a “much better model for children” but when STAGE asked at the March 28 meeting, we were told that this is based only on a “teaching theory” and not on research-based evidence. Did the district consider any best practices utilized by their benchmark schools?
3. What is the exact number of FTEs currently being let go and how many FTEs will be added back under the new proposal? If there is a FTE reduction, why? Is cost savings intended to be one of the benefits?
4. In the FAQs, the administration says there will be “far more classroom support”? But let’s take the example of a three-section school. Here one aide will be available once every three days during a reading block to help a classroom. However current staffing for LEAP provides 3.5 hours per DAY to EACH first grade classroom and enrichment students are pulled out one to three times a week for reading enrichment and similarly for math enrichment. This seems like far less support.
5. The proposed staffing levels penalize schools with three or five sections in a grade by providing 34% and 20% lower level of assistance respectively than schools with two or four sections. We encourage the district to devise a more equitable staffing model.
6. How does this plan ensure there is focus across both ends of the spectrum? For example, will the instructional assistants spend 50% of their time with former LEAP students and 50% on enrichment or is it 85% versus 15%, 60-40? 95-5? What standards can be put in place to guarantee that there is at least a minimum level of service provided to kids at the higher end of the spectrum in every classroom?
7. STAGE was told at the March 28 meeting that the instructional assistant time guidelines detailed in Board Policy 5.280-R will remain unchanged (and be in addition to the new instructional assistants) with respect to large class sizes and ELL students. Is this true?
a. Will these “large class size” assistants be trained and utilized in a manner similar to the new instructional assistants?
b. When will this policy be updated to reflect the guidelines for the proposed learning support program? Does this require board approval?
c. STAGE board members have had children in classrooms where aides were assigned due to the large class size but the teacher did not utilize them to provide any instructional support. Instead they fulfilled administrative duties such as making copies, etc. Will it be at the teacher’s discretion to use these new instructional assistants in this way as well?
8. STAGE was also told at the March 28 meeting that classroom teachers would sometimes work individually with students while the instructional assistant would instruct the rest of the class. Will the aides be responsible for whole-class instruction?
9. What specific measures will be used to judge the outcomes of this new learning support model? How often and in what format will the metrics be provided to the Board of Education and the community? How will parent input be included?
STAGE believes there a few items that have been communicated by the district in their Talk203 message and FAQs as new benefits that are misleading with respect to the enrichment program:
A. “All instruction will be directed by teachers.” All materials and approach for enrichment today is to be designed by the classroom teacher and delivered by the enrichment assistant. This is not a change.
B. “Teachers will be able to quickly identify students who need . . . further enrichment.” Enrichment is a flexible model and teachers today already identify which students participate and for how long. This is not a change.
C. “Student learning will be much more connected to a rigorous and challenging core curriculum.” Again teachers today already design the enrichment curriculum so how it is or is not tied to the current curriculum is completely under their control today.
D. “Students will be present in the classroom for core instruction.” Yes, that will be true but we don’t see that as a benefit. The reason students are pulled out for enrichment is because they already understand the core curriculum and need additional challenge and extensions and in some cases acceleration. These methods all promote learning more effectively rather than having students be forced to listen repetitively to concepts for which they have already demonstrated proficiency.
STAGE sees one clear benefit from this new model — additional support provided across all areas of the core curriculum. Although a small number of schools do provide enrichment in science or social studies today, STAGE has always voiced this as an overall shortcoming in today’s enrichment program.
STAGE believes that for the new model to be successful and to be embraced by the gifted community as a positive change, the following issues must also be addressed:
1. Our concern as we have communicated to the administration on several occasions is in how differentiation is implemented and executed. We believe that it is an enormous burden to place on a teacher that s/he must differentiate across the entire spectrum of students in all subjects every day. We believe there are best practices that have been implemented or piloted both within our own district and/or in District 203’s benchmark districts that would make it much easier for teachers to more effectively differentiate. Examples include clustering of students where top students are placed together in one classroom per grade making it easier to provide them with enrichment/differentiation by a single teacher; allowing reading groups and/or math groups to be formed across a grade rather than within each teacher’s classroom facilitating more precise groupings; allowing subject acceleration where perhaps an advanced 1st grade math student joins a 2nd grade classroom for math. STAGE strongly advocates that the district implement some or all of these known best practices across the district.
2. Differentiation has been in the teachers’ toolbox and has been a focus of district training for several years now. And yet STAGE continues to hear regularly from parents that many times parents do not see any evidence that differentiation is actually occurring (or it only occurs after a parent has requested that their child be given more challenging work rather than being proactively identified by a teacher). The district must help teachers improve how they communicate to parents about what they are doing in the classroom for these students. We want to know “what is the teacher doing for my child?” not “here are the ways a teacher might differentiate in a classroom.” This will go a long way in making parents more comfortable that the needs of their children are being met. Except in rare occurrences, parents do not see or understand that today.
3. STAGE parents also report a wide variation in the quality of differentiation provided to their children from teacher to teacher. Some teachers clearly “get it” and provide stimulating and engaging activities for students beyond the regular curriculum along with individual feedback and encouragement. At the other end of the spectrum is the teacher who just gives out more of the same problems to do or who doesn’t interact with the student doing IXL math all period long or who doesn’t even identify a student’s need. Clearly additional support in the classroom will help. But we urge the district to continue its efforts in training, coaching and sharing best practices about how to a) identify students who would benefit from further enrichment, b) understand learner profiles and c) create and implement meaningful learning opportunities for these students.
As a side note, quality differentiation is not just a K-2 issue. Again STAGE consistently hears that parents do not feel adequate differentiation is occurring in Honors Math at the elementary or middle school levels. This continues to be true even this past year with the implementation of new curriculum for Common Core.
4. One element enrichment provides that is not addressed in this proposal is the value of allowing like-minded thinkers to work as a team and challenge each other. By keeping differentiation in a classroom, this is watered down (or perhaps eliminated if it is a single student working by themselves at a computer). Time after time when you ask students what they like about enrichment, they will tell you that they like being with kids that think like they do. Best practices like clustering or creating flexible groupings across a grade would help address this issue, but we fear are not being included in the proposal.
5. Enrichment opportunities need to be supported for grades 3-5. While a small number of schools today provide enrichment to grades 3-5, STAGE has always advocated that this service is needed across all grades and not just limited to K-2. This is particularly vital in 3rd grade when PI is not yet offered and HM does not begin for several months. Plus many students don’t qualify for the gifted programs until subsequent years meaning they may have the need for enrichment but not the test-taking skills that would enable them to qualify. Although we know the district will encourage teachers in grades 3-5 to differentiate as well, all the issues discussed above are relevant to grades 3-5, and STAGE believes these grades should also be given additional instructional support in their classrooms.
K-2 is a pivotal time for students. Kids come to school with vastly different levels of readiness. For gifted students who learn new material quickly or students who are more advanced because there has been a high level of previous enrichment in their home environment, it drives them crazy to have to sit through repetitive lessons. Because District 203 doesn’t offer any official gifted instruction until 2nd trimester of 3rd grade at the earliest, these early years for these students can be soul-sucking, creativity-draining, mind-numbing years. For many of these students, getting pulled out for enrichment is the highlight of their week and the only thing that keeps them going. Enrichment isn’t perfect. But if the alternative does not challenge them on a regular basis we risk killing their love for learning.
Please do not let that happen to our children.
Finally STAGE would like to express our disappointment at the lack of communication by the district on this issue. STAGE meets with district administrators on a quarterly basis. Despite enrichment being a topic that we have asked about at every meeting for the last five years, administrators never told STAGE about any pilot nor these proposed changes to enrichment. From a parent perspective, especially given the timing right before Spring Break, there continues to be a disconnect between the district’s intent of open communication as outlined in Future Focus and the actual execution of it.
We hope the Board of Education will seriously consider STAGE’s questions, issues and suggestions for improving the proposed learning support model so that if enrichment is eliminated, it is replaced with a fully robust, thoughtfully designed and implemented system that will indeed meet the needs of ALL learners.
STAGE Executive Board