This was a really, really long meeting -- it lasted over 3 hours. In addition, ACTV was NOT there (probably due to taping Town Meeting), so I'm going to do my best to really summarize it ... but I'd strongly encourage you to also check out the full meeting minutes when they are posted on the ARPS website because by the end, my note taking abilities were likely falling short.
We started with a few announcements from the superintendent (who was leading, for the final time, a SC meeting). These included a thank you to Marianne Jorgensen (who served for 9 years, I believe, and attended her last meeting last night), enthusiasm about attending the ARHS graduation at few weeks ago, and an update on the special education review. The Request for Proposals (RFP) for the special education review is nearly complete, and will be circulated to the SC and superintendent Rodriguez for comments before it goes out. Then, companies/groups put in bids to do the work, and a committee will meet to review the bids and choose who does the review. This review is being paid for out of funds from the economic stimulus package, and this review will include a cost-benefit analysis of our current programs. Information on the findings will be presented publicly. Finally, Dr. Rodriguez has hired a consultant to analyze some data on our district, and that person will be doing this work from July 3rd to 13th.
We then turned to the ARHS school improvement plan. I believe this report (power point) is being put on the ARPS website, so I'm not going to go over each of the slides. But here are the key things I took from the report: the high school has lost a lot of funds (8.2 teachers, lots of instructional supplies), there will be much less flexibility in moving between classes next year as a result of the loss of teachers, and the budgets for the future are dismal. This means that we need to make pretty major changes -- not just small cuts (like eliminating low enrolled classes/teams).
The faculty voted (49 to 25) to keep the trimester system, which is their right in the contract, but this has some major consequences -- with a change to a semester, students would only need to take one study hall whereas now they need to take two. The cost of moving to one study hall in a trimester is about 5.2 teachers -- or $270,000.
We also discussed course enrollment. Although the HS has a mean of 22 students per class, this number is pretty misleading because many of the electives have space only for 15 to 20 students, which brings the mean down. There are core academic classes (including math, social studies and world language) with class sizes as high as 27/28, and even 30. The SC asked for a report on class enrollments by all classes, which Mark Jackson said he would send to us.
We then discussed graduation requirements (which are lower, at least in math/science, in our high school than in many of our comparison districts). Some preliminary data on this issue has been gathered, and there is good news and bad news. The good news is that most students seem to be taking more than the minimum required (which is two years of math and two years of science). However, there are exceptions to this trend for students in some sub-groups (race, free/reduced lunch, gender, special ed), and Mark will do a report on this in the fall for the SC. Farshid noted that even if most students are taking more than the required, it still sends a message to students about our expectations. Mark also noted that taking more years of math/science opens doors for students in terms of future opportunities, and thus is important.
We then discussed Student Activities, and how all support for the clubs (teachers get a stipend of $544 per club they advise) has been dropped. The School Council/Parent Center are therefore running a campaign to raise $25,000 to add stipends for clubs next year. This campaign will get running this fall.
Next, Mark noted that all ARHS are now using PowerSchool, and that a parent portal to power school will be piloted next year.
He then reported on the two alternative high schools (South Amherst Campus and East Street), and his goal to increase alignment between these schools and the main campus. This will mean creating a program of studies for these schools, integrating students into the standard 9th grade curriculum (starting next year with world civilization), and increasing contact with guidance counselors.
Finally, he reported on the problem of students exceeding the absence limit -- as many as 263 students exceeded the absence limit in at least one course in the spring trimester, which means in theory they should not receive credit (but in reality are often earning an A or B). The HS is now contemplating making some type of change in their enforcement of this policy.
We then turned to the school improvement plan for the middle school. This presentation started with an overview of the model used in our middle school called "Turning Points" (which you can google to learn more about), and then turned towards the specific goals, process, and update of both the 2008-2009 year and the 2009-2010 year. The big issue (not surprisingly) is budget -- there are now 3 teams in both 7th and 8th, and next year there will be 2 1/2 teams in 7th and 2 teams in 8th. This means that teachers will have larger classes, and more grading.
Next, this presentation included information on outcomes -- related to MCAS data (English, math), Reading (as measured by the DRP), and discipline. The MCAS data reveal that most students in both English and math are scoring at the proficient level. The DRP data reveal that most kids show either greater than expected (nationally) or expected reading growth during the MS. The discipline data show that fewer kids are receiving suspensions from 2001 to 2009.
The MS then presented the two goals for the current year (which are the same as the goals for the upcoming year). These goals are (1) achievement and academic excellence and equity for every student, and (2) enhanced communication between home & school. In terms of the first goal, there is work occurring now and next year on differentiating of instruction, common assessments (not just waiting for MCAS scores), increasing rigor for students who need academic support, and inquiry groups. In terms of the second goal, students now learn of team assignments PRIOR to the start of school, there is much more contact between MS principals and elementary school principals as well as 6th grade teachers, there was an evening orientation presented in March which was attended by 240 (of the 260) 6th grade parents, and the Family-School Partnership has hosted coffees/lunches (although these were not well attended). There is also on-going work on keeping the website updated, although this will be hard with increasing budget cuts which reduce staff.
In terms of next year, there will be work in all core academic areas to examine the effectiveness of the challenges/extensions provided (are enough students getting to do this work?). Current and past students/parents are being surveyed, and focus groups may be held. There will also be a survey of families to determine what type of communication from school is most helpful. Currently, families have a single conference in 7th grade, and no conference in 8th grade, which may be inadequate in terms of keeping updated on students' progress. There will be more work on training teachers/students/parents to use on-line grading to improve information.
Finally, there was a brief discussion of whether Turning Points is the most effective model. The School Governance Council believes it is, because of its focus on relationships, and that we should continue to use this model (but make sure it is working well).
Members of the committee then asked a number of questions (which I tried to write down, though I may have missed some -- if so, apologies, and again, what for the official minutes). Andy asked two questions: could the parent portal be used to give parents information about homework assigned each night (which he would find helpful) and how well is the extensions model working for math? He also wondered why the MS has regular 8th grade math and honors algebra, instead of a regular algebra option (an excellent question that I've asked before -- and I still can't see the rationale for this). Answers to these are going to be provided later.
Farshid then noted that the issue of regular algebra as an 8th grade option was being discussed on the math curriculum council, and that, in theory, once Impact 1-2-3 is fully implemented (which is two years away), all 8th graders will have completed algebra.
Steve then asked a question about whether Turning Points was the right model to use, seeing as this is NOT a widely used model, and seeing as this is the only MSAN school that used this model. He noted that many middle schools do use teams, but that Turning Points is a particular approach that is not widely used. He also noted that we should be assessing the effectiveness of extensions, and that there are many middle schools that use tracked math in 6th or 7th grade. He specifically noted Princeton, NJ (a MSAN district, where I attended middle and high school) tracks students for math in 6th grade, and that their "low track" gets all kids through algebra in 8th grade, and that their "high track" gets kids through algebra in 7th grade (and the kids then do algebra II in 8th grade).
I then asked a question about whether there was data on differences in the DRP and/or MCAS scores as a function of team, based on the very different comments I heard from MS parents about the type of work/expectations/feedback provided by teachers on different teams. Glenda said this type of data was going to be analyzed next year. I also asked a question regarding the differences in how MCAS scores look in English (most kids are proficient) and math (some kids are proficient, but there is much more variability). Mike Hayes remarked that this trend is typical of state-wide scores -- and does not reflect the Amherst experience in particular.
Kathleen then asked how the district's commitment to social justice is being carried out. Glenda responded that she would prepare a written summary to answer this question, which she would send to the committee.
There was then a brief discussion of whether the SC would continue to take School Choice seats in 7th and 8th grade. The current recommendation is NOT to do so, given the increased class sizes already, but that final decisions will be made soon (as final enrollments in the MS become clearer over the summer). Tracy Farnham asked about the number of applications, and I asked about how many of those applications are from siblings of students currently in the district. We learned that there are 8 applications in total, and that two are from siblings.
The meeting then turned to the final presentation of the night, which was by Fran Ziperstein and Mike Hayes, on professional development and evaluation. This presentation was very thorough (and the SC had received copies of all materials in advance, so they were not reviewed again at the meeting), so we turned right away to questions (it was also VERY late by this point). There were a number of questions, including issues of how evaluations are conducted (a three-step process, in which a teacher describes the lesson he/she will do, then the observer watches it, and then they meet to discuss it), who does the evaluation (usually the principal, but could be the vice principal or department chair), and the challenge of doing professional development in the face of increasing budget cuts. It was noted that the superintendent really needs to take the lead on evaluations -- setting this as a priority and making sure it happens.
We then turned to a few small items of business: setting a date for the summer conference with leaders from the MA School Committee organization (July 22nd), accepting generous gifts from various sources, and postponing the report from the "How Are We Doing" Subcommittee (this will be a very interesting report -- I'm part of this subcommittee -- and I do hope we eventually get to address this!). We also delayed discussing a motion presented by Steve Rivkin to collect data related to the possibility of moving 6th grade to the MS -- it was noted that the hour was late and that it would be good to have the new superintendent in town to begin such discussions.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.