View published letter here.
Board of Education:
STAGE met with Tim Wierenga and Debbie Cota on Wednesday, April 16. We feel reassured that the new staffing model does not appear to be a cost-savings plan in disguise (in fact, may cost slightly more than the current model when benefits are included) and that the district does want to provide enriched learning experiences in the classroom to advanced learners. We understand the district may possibly extend the model to provide some level of support for third through fifth grade students, a move we applaud. However, STAGE remains concerned about three elements of the plan.
Our biggest concern is when all learners are in the classroom all the time next year that gifted and academically talented students will get overlooked by the pressing demands of delivering core curriculum to all and providing vital support to low-performing students. When we asked for specific assurances that the instructional needs of our children will also be met, the district in essence answered, “Trust us.” That is not good enough. We believe the district needs to establish teaching standards, educational structures, time allocations and/or frequent communications by teachers so that it is evident how this will be accomplished. We suggested several alternatives that would address our concern but the district has not yet embraced any of these ideas nor offered any of their own. STAGE’s suggestions are:
A. Create K-5 teaching standards that ensure all students are taught at their appropriate instructional level on a frequent and regular basis. These standards may already be defined as part of the new curriculum. Two suggestions of possible teaching standards:
a. Every student will receive guided reading instruction that is within one level of their assessed reading level a minimum of three times a week. Students below grade-level
standards will receive instruction five times a week.
b. Every unit or topic in math will utilize a pre-test or other assessment tool. Students will be divided into instructional groups based on their knowledge. Students who
demonstrate proficiency of the material will be instructed with more advanced or enriched work until the completion of that unit or topic.
B. Establish structures that make it easier for teachers to more effectively differentiate. This could include clustering 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 a student who is significantly advanced in one subject joins a higher grade classroom for instruction in that subject.
C. Establish a percentage of time that instructional assistants must be used for enrichment purposes.
D. Establish frequent and informative communication between teachers and parents. We want to know “what is the teacher doing for my child?” not “here are the ways a teacher might
differentiate in a classroom.” Communication should also include the results of in-class assessments (beyond just standardized tests) that teachers are using to determine student’s
1. Was the new math curriculum developed with enrichment activities and materials built into the curriculum? Are pre-tests being used to determine a student’s
proficiency and to differentiate the math curriculum in the classroom today?
2. What does the district mean when it says, “In general, students will be present in the classroom for core instruction”? If students have already proven they have
mastered the material, will they still have to sit through the core instruction?
3. How will parents know when their child is receiving enriched differentiation?
4. The district is critical of pull-out enrichment because it is “inconsistent”. How will the proposed model increase consistency?
STAGE’s second concern is that the staffing model as proposed by the district results in disparate outcomes that are inequitable between and even within schools. Our recommendation is to modify the staffing model to address the obvious disparity between grades with 2 or 4 sections and grades with 3 or 5 sections. Furthermore STAGE suggests that the formula for determining the number of Instructional Assistants (IA) incorporate more variables and allow an assistant to be split between grades. We’re confident if principals are given additional support hours, they will find a way to allocate them! Our suggestions:
A. Here is an example of the current discrepancy. If one school has 1st grade classrooms with 27, 26 and 26 students, they will have 6.67, 1.67 and 1.67 hours of assistant time
respectively. If a neighboring school has 27, 26, 26 and 26 students, they will get 7.5, 2.5, 2.5 and 2.5 hours of assistant time respectively. If a class at one school has 5 students
below (or above) reading levels and a class at another school has no students below (or above) reading level, they will receive the same amount of instructional assistant time
assuming same class size and same number of sections. These differences are substantial and create inequity in the support that each class receives.
B. The district has said Enrollment Assistants will be trained and utilized like Instructional Assistants. Should these two components be rolled into one staffing pool?
C. We propose that IA staffing levels should be based on factors such as: a) number of students in a grade; b) number of students entering with assessed reading level lower than
the minimum grade level standard, and c) number of students with assessed reading levels higher than the standard for the grade.
1. District FAQs state that number of IAs will be determined by 2 things: “The number of sections in a grade level and needs for support and enrichment that are identified
among those students.” We have not heard the district talk about the second part of this statement. What does it mean?
2. What is the district proposing for 3rd – 5th grade?
3. STAGE was told that the total number of Enrollment Assistants and Instructional Assistants will not be allowed to exceed the number of classrooms. So if in a 3
section grade, all 3 classes qualify for Enrollment Assistants, this grade would not receive any additional support from an Instructional Assistant. What is the basis for
capping support? 4. STAGE was told that an IA would be based on a 5.5 hour day with 0.5 hours for lunch. Of the remaining 5 hours, 4.5 hours would be student contact hours. Does
this adequately reflect non-instructional times such as two recesses for K-2, student lunch, gym/music/art specials, walking students to/ from recess or other places
outside the classroom (this last category was specifically included by Kitty Ryan as part of LEAP’s non-contact time and should be treated the same for IAs)?
Finally STAGE feels a trial should be conducted across a small number of schools to prove the new learning support model is effective in its design as well as identify any modifications that should be made to improve its success. Metrics should be identified upfront and reviewed prior to rolling it out further. If the district decides to go ahead with a full implementation, these metrics and success criteria must still be defined and a timetable to review them established.
1. Are classroom teachers in support of this model? The district mentions the support of principals and NESPA but doesn’t specify the teachers who will be responsible for
implementing this new model. How has their input been gathered and concerns addressed?
2. Metrics should include the following and be made available to the community:
a. Percentage of students below, at and above grade-level reading and math standards. How do schools without LEAP compare to schools with LEAP
(either comparing different schools in a trial or comparing 2013-14 school results with 2014-15 school results)? How do schools that had all-day
kindergarten in 2013-14 compare to schools that did not?
b. Actual student contact hours for IAs compared to projected.
c. Confidential feedback from teachers, parents and students should be gathered.
STAGE has tried to engage with district staff in a fact-based, collaborative manner by suggesting ways that we believe the model can be strengthened. Many parents in the community share the concerns we are presenting, and most of the solutions will benefit not only gifted and talented learners but all learners in our schools. We urge the Board of Education to consider the input we offer and to address the questions we raise. “Trust us” is not an acceptable answer by district staff. The district is taking away a current service from a specific subset of students while promising to provide it in an enhanced and timelier but essentially ad-hoc way. We deserve answers as to how we will know when and in what way enrichment is being provided. Schools deserve to be treated equitably. And the community deserves to know how the district performed against the measures of success.
Finally going forward the district staff must improve in their willingness to proactively engage parents and community groups in discovering questions, concerns, ideas and suggestions long before they ask for Board approval or implement a major change. Not only will this allow issues to be addressed upfront but it establishes buy-in and creates a path for communication and meaningful partnership with stakeholders. The Board of Education should hold Superintendent Bridges and his leadership team accountable for delivering on the promises made during Future Focus to “build an ongoing process for strengthening trust, communication and collaborative efforts with the full community.”
STAGE Executive Board