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Junior high scheduling changes brings opposition

Published May 16. 2012 05:01PM

Changes to its junior high school schedule has been met with some resistance in the Palmerton Area School District.

Brad Landis, president of the Palmerton Area Education Association, read a statement from the PAEA to the school board on Tuesday.

In his statement, Landis said administration has decided to eliminate homogenous grouping - the grouping of students of similar abilities - and replace it with fully heterogeneous grouping, or random grouping.

He said that "while there may be some merit to this change, two elements of it are puzzling to the PAEA."

Landis asked why would the heterogeneous grouping be done for all subjects, when Robert Slavin, the author of hundreds of grouping studies, recommends grouping by ability for reading and math? Many of the studies Slavin reviewed concluded with the decision to select either homogeneous or heterogeneous grouping is often a matter of the composition of the student body, Landis said. In other words, what might be right for one district could be wrong for another, he said.

Another question Landis asked is "why would such a change be instituted without at least seeking some sort of feedback from those who best know the student body, the junior high teachers?

"Through this proposal, students of all learning abilities will be randomly grouped, regardless of ability," Landis said. "The PAEA believes that this proposal will provide a disservice to all our students."

Landis mentioned students receiving learning support services, as an example. In the new plan, he said learning support students will be mixed into all classes.

"These students will suffer because the learning support teacher is only going to be able to spend a short period of time in each class because he or she will have to move room to room within a period," he said. "Currently, the learning support teachers are able to follow their students all day long, and are able to provide a high level of support to their students all day."

That prompted Landis to ask the board which method makes more sense.

"Grouping our students by similar abilities has allowed students in accelerated sections to receive additional enrichment opportunities. Students requiring learning support services have instruction designed to meet their specific learning needs. And students who find themselves in neither of these groups benefit by receiving instruction that allows them to reach their full potential. As you hear, we feel that moving away from this approach will be harmful."

Landis then discussed the termination of middle-level teaming, which he said the PAEA also believes will be detrimental to the educational program at the junior high.

"Many years ago, the district spent thousands of dollars researching the middle-level teaming concept and a group of stakeholders made up of administrators, teachers, and other school personnel felt that this concept would be beneficial for our students," he said. "The concept was adopted and has proved beneficial."

Further, Landis said "teaming has always helped to smooth the transition for our students between elementary, junior high, and high school."

"As students become more independent, teaming has allowed teachers to meet with a student as a group to discuss behavioral and academic issues," he said. "Teachers are aware of adolescent-related student issues across the board, and on a daily basis, because there is a high level of communication between teachers. Understanding our students and knowing their needs has been greatly increased because of teaming."

Without it, Landis said "teachers stand to know less about their students because of the numbers of students seen on a daily basis and for a short amount of time, about 45 minutes a day."

"The loss of teaming will be a disadvantage to those students who are having difficulty transitioning and acclimating to the junior high," he said. "Any problem or problems that we currently have stand to get worse."

Landis added that "teaming also allows parents who wish to meet with their child's teachers to do so as a group."

"Parents do not have to make five or more individual appointments," he said. "Without teaming, such meetings will not be able to occur in the future."

Collaboration, Landis said, is considered to be one of the best practices in education. During teaming sessions, teachers would discuss new and creative ways of delivering instruction, assisting each other with technology, and also seek suggestions, which has allowed teachers to work with one another on across-the-curriculum projects and activities by providing time for planning and preparation, he said.

"All of this to become better teachers," said Landis. "While states all over this country and other countries around the world look to increase teacher collaboration, why would we want to dismantle an opportunity we are already providing to our teachers?

There have been school districts locally that have done away with teaming, but those districts did it only because of their finances, Landis said.

"However, the junior high has been operating with teaming with a bare-bones staff, so even by dismantling it there will be no monetary savings from the administration's plan," he said. "So the question must be asked, why do away with it?

Furthermore, Landis said "the PAEA is extremely frustrated that such a radical schedule change would occur without comprehensive research or any teacher participation. How can those that are "in the trenches" not even be asked of their opinion?

In closing, Landis said "the PAEA feels that the proposed sweeping changes require collaboration, something that hasn't yet been done."

"As a result, we firmly believe that no change should be implemented for the 2012-13 school year," he said. "The PAEA feels that our Palmerton Area School District students that have the most to lose under the proposed changes."

Afterward, resident Tammy Suto, who said she has two children who attend school in the district, one of which is a junior high student, asked the board for an explanation on the schedule change.

Superintendent Carol Boyce said she took issue with several statements by Landis, at which time she noted there will continue to be homogeneous grouping only for students taking higher-level math.

Suto asked why the district would want to get rid of team-teaching in the first place, and suggested the change will be "detrimental for both ends of the spectrum."

Boyce confirmed that the schedule change will go into effect as of the 2012-13 school year.

"Part of our reasoning is to decrease class size," Boyce said. "By going from five to six sections will enable smaller class size, and should allow for more individualized teaching in that class setting."

Resident Rebecca Fegley said she also has two children who attend school in the district; one, who is a gifted child in seventh grade, and the other, a special needs student.

Fegley said she believes the change "would be a very huge disservice."

Resident Melissa Hay was brought to tears as she discussed the emotionally-charged matter.

Resident Marion Hoffner, a retired teacher from the district, said the teaming approach worked well, and added that no one sees as many students per day as those teachers in the junior high school.

"I feel that the junior high is getting lost; it seems to be getting absorbed by the senior high," Hoffner said. "Seventh and eighth graders have needs; and the concept of middle level teaming was created to address those needs."

Further, Hoffner stated "it concerns me that this is going away. I think it is a major loss and true disservice to the children in the junior high."

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