A crowd packs School Committee chambers Tuesday to give testimony on the end of the district’s Intensive Study Program. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The fight to save the school district’s Intensive Studies Program has itself intensified, with a majority of the 30 students, parents and city councillors speaking Tuesday at a School Committee meeting urging officials and administrators to at least let current ISP kids finish their promised years.

The program accepts nearly any student who feels held back educationally in their traditional classrooms, although the program is for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders only and is held only at the Kennedy-Longfellow and Peabody schools. With the Innovation Agenda separating the middle-school grades from the district’s elementary schools and moving them to new “upper schools” in September, the 175 or so students in the program are dreading its announced end — and a return to classes where they say they’ve been bullied, pressed into teaching other kids or bored to the point of surreptitiously reading books and doing homework under their desks.

“I was in a reading group for one year reading this thin, little book that was below my reading level, and it took us the entire year to read it because our teacher would completely forget to meet with us. She’d be too busy with other groups,” said one student, Celeste DeLancey.

“One math class we actually spent the whole class on one question, waiting for the kids who were struggling,” said another student, Zeke Iammarino. “Now that I’m in the ISP I learn much quicker, and as opposed to one question that we did throughout the one day, we did a whole packet in a class.”

Academic Challenge

School officials say they hope to find a way to bring the advantages of ISP to all students, but in classrooms that hold all level of learners. The Academic Challenge report presented to the committee Jan. 17 includes an honors class option for math in the upper schools, but no specific advanced option for English-language arts or social studies, just a “Scholars Challenge” component that the report says will — when designed by middle-grades teachers and heads of upper schools — provide “a structured opportunity for each student to challenge him/herself to develop academically, socially and emotionally [and] serve to support the creation of a community of learners.”

The four choices for upper-school deans are to be offered the jobs next month, but not formally start work until the summer, district officials have said. The committee has a Feb. 7 vote scheduled to accept or reject the Academic Challenge report that could erase ISP from the district, but District Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk said that date was set at the beginning of the school year and could be changed as the committee deemed necessary.

That vote would likely come with more discussion of whether there can be two teachers in upper school classrooms to give more attention to a range of student abilities, an alternative proposed by committee member Marc McGovern. (After hearing comment about ISP, school officials went into the first of two budget retreats that will also weigh on the possibility. The next is Tuesday.)

“The social and academic contract”

But among the packed committee room, lined with students holding signs and frequently pounding cabinets as a form of applause during the meeting’s nearly two hours, more than a dozen people exhorted Superintendent Jeffrey Young and the committee to let the ISP students finish out their time either way.

“At least modify [the Academic Challenge report] to allow students currently enrolled in the ISP to finish the program they were promised through the eighth grade. If you do this, you’ll have fulfilled your part in the social and academic contract you made with these children and you’ll have garnered two years of data with which to assess whether the new system really does incorporate the best parts of the ISP,” parent Shannon Larkin said. “That being said, I have grave concerns about the Academic Challenge recommendation and urge you to send the document back for revision. It contains too many wishes and not enough substance or support to make those wishes come true.”

Larkin wasn’t alone in that sentiment. Among those with similar concerns about the plan were councillor Craig Kelley — also in attendance were councillors Leland Cheung and Denise Simmons, while Ken Reeves led the meeting — who noted the “huge amount” of professional development needed before September to get teachers up to speed on the so-called differentiated instruction.

A few people simply said the district wouldn’t be able to pull off a change by September.

“If everybody goes back to what the Innovation Agenda is about, it’s about being operationally ready in September 2012. It’s almost February. I still don’t know what the foreign language options will be … math seems like it’s progressing relatively well, but what about English, what about social studies? If we’re planning on implementing the Innovation Agenda, we’re not ready in September. We need a Plan B,” Daniel Schutzberg said. “I’m beginning to consider what my options are in public schools, and I don’t like my choices.”

There were also those for whom even grandfathering current ISP kids wasn’t enough. “It doesn’t have to be ISP, but there has to be something for these kids. And it can’t just be the grandfathered-in kids for the next couple of years, because there are other kids behind them with the same issues,” said one of those, Lisa McManus.

Much of the most powerful testimony of the night belonged to the several students who spoke, and perhaps it is apt that it was a student who got the biggest, most appreciative laugh of the night as well.

“Please just let the kids that are already in ISP [complete] the term,” Zeke Iammarino said. “Because it’s kind of like someone’s eating a cheeseburger and you knock it out of their hand.”

This post was updated Jan. 26, 2012, to correct the number of students in ISP classes.