Parents have questions about schools

By NANCY WHYTE

At the first school board meeting held since the Avonworth Town Hall that took place 12 days earlier, more than 20 parents filed into the board room to voice concerns and complaints about various topics.

Generally, there are few if any individuals in attendance at such meetings, but the audience, in which almost everyone had something to say, at the March 6 school board workshop session created a standing-room-only situation.

Board vice president Kristin Thompson chaired the lengthy meeting. Each person was given unrestricted time to participate.

A prevalent theme concerned literacy and, in light of the district’s current emphasis on project-based learning and “making things,” whether sufficient instructional time was being spent on developing the core skills of reading and particularly written expression. Several parents were concerned that their children might not be adequately prepared for the upcoming state-mandated tests. Questions were also raised about the curriculum.

A related topic that many in attendance appeared to be strongly in favor of was for the district to hire a literacy coach. Such an individual would focus on reading/writing curriculum, overseeing classroom instruction of reading and writing, and professional development for teachers to emphasize and incorporate literacy skills in all subjects.

“Our kids need solid, foundational skills” in literacy,” commented one parent and then added, that “high expectations at each grade level” are needed.

When asked why the district did not have such a “coach,” superintendent Tom Ralston stated that in the past, the district had once had a literacy coach who was grant-funded, but the position was not retained after the grant ended. He said he would certainly be open to the idea of a the district acquiring a literacy coach.

Later in the meeting, several school board members suggested that creating such a position could be very beneficial.

Several parents questioned the standards-based report cards used in the elementary school in which, instead of letter or percentage grades being stated, a “P” indicating “proficiency” is listed. As one person said, “knowing a child is proficient is important, but there is a wide-range of proficiency” and without more specific information, one cannot determine if improvement is occurring or measure the degree of improvement.

Ralston agreed that the report card issue needed to be addressed and anticipated convening a group to do so. He said that the new elementary school principal will arrive April 3, and the report card situation would be a good opportunity for him to meet and begin working with everyone. Ralston said that the change to that format was “made with the best intentions, but the standards-based format” did not meet the needs of providing adequate feedback to parents.

A number of parents of current fifth grade students voiced concerns about that particular group of students.

These Class of 2024 students were the last group to miss attending the primary center and will be the first group of sixth graders not to move on to the middle school. One parent stated,“This is the seventh year these kids have been in the same building and played on the same playground equipment.” Another suggested that this current fifth grade class has been a “guinea pig” and has had to endure numerous new curriculum, textbooks, many substitutes and new teachers as well as a lengthy string of building principals. She requested that “special attention” be paid to this group of students.

One parent of three young children said she was concerned about the middle school and high school students being combined on school buses, although she said she had been told that seating on the buses was going to be organized with the younger children assigned to the front and older students to the rear. Also, she said that she hoped the middle school would stay a somewhat-separate school from the high school. Ralston assured her that while grade levels would be meeting in different classrooms, not much else would change.

Project-based learning was another topic addressed by more than one parent. Questions such as whether such activities were the best use of time and whether such lessons actually exposed students to core academic lessons were raised. Whether teachers received adequate professional development to help incorporate project-based learning was also asked.

When directly asked if every teacher was required to conduct PBL, Ralston answered no. He said that the professional development was on-going. Also, if a subject appeared to administrators to be particularly well-suited for PBL activities, the instructor would be encouraged “to give it a shot.”

Some people questioned whether PBL would prepare a student for standardized tests or for college. Another questioned if kids were held accountable for actually mastering the goals of a PBL assignment.

Several parents requested more information on the planned Career Academies. One parent questioned that, if eventually Career Academies became a requirement instead of the current option, would that merely evolve into one more burden for students? Another parent suggested that the college/career activities should be initiated for even lower grades.

Ralston pointed out that many of the successful schools recently visited and observed had quite extensive job shadowing, mentoring and internship programs. He also explained how the duties of Avonworth’s guidance counselors were being restructured to better-meet both current social-emotion needs and future career-school needs of the students.

Several parents spoke about the arts, particularly the music department, which many wanted expanded. Hiring a full-time music teacher for the upcoming year was advocated by several parents. Concerns were expressed that if a part-time music teacher were to be hired, the pool of candidates to choose from would likely be smaller and a part-time employee would probably be more inclined to leave the district prematurely for a full-time job elsewhere.

Another parent stated that while arts and music were important, with a limited amount of money to go around, reading, writing, and mathematics were much more important.

At its March 13 regular meeting, the school board is expected to vote on the number and type of positions for the 2017-18 school year.

Board members David Oberdick, Eric Templin, John Brandt and Patrick Stewart were not present at the meeting, although at various times during the meeting, they participated by telephone.