School Committee members Fred Fantini, top, and Richard Harding, middle, proposed an amendment Tuesday that could have led to honors classes for middle-schooler math. Marc McGovern was the first to express his surprise at the turnaround.

Arriving ready to give final, formal affirmation to the “academic challenge” policy they debated and approved last month, School Committee members were instead befuddled Tuesday to find a brand-new amendment suddenly standing in the way.

While the policy that was voted in 6-1 last time, written by the superintendent, gave the district and its teachers totally flexible student grouping, the amendment hoped to grant them, well, totally totally flexible student grouping.

“I was a little surprised when the amendment came in,” committee member Marc McGovern said, “because if the superintendent didn’t feel that he had enough flexibility with the motion and policy he put forward last meeting, my question would be why was that policy put forward?”

In addition to puzzling out the need for the amendment, the committee confirmed that sixth-graders next year would have two teachers in every math class, and that the approach would be assessed over the year to see if seventh- and eighth-graders should also get co-teachers. The initiative is the sole comfort remaining to the parents and kids who fought the stripping of the district’s Intensive Studies Program from the four upper schools opening in the fall.

The committee also voted to bring in consultants to train teachers and administrators to work with advanced learners, meaning kids who learn faster than others and need to be challenged with curriculum meant for older students — the kind who had been attending the ISP.

While those two items passed without the need for a roll call, there were hints immediately that the amendment would have more trouble.

It asked that math be exempted from a ban on designating classes as “honors” or “nonhonors.” Last month, parents and kids from the ISP had hoped that a math honors class would remain, but the committee had done away with it.

Hard to make clear

Fred Fantini, who brought forward the amendment Tuesday with fellow committee member Richard Harding, found it difficult to articulate why it had been proposed, beyond that he wanted Superintendent Jeffrey Young to have “total flexibility” in shaping the structure of classes. The recently elected Mayor Henrietta Davis, in her first meeting as chairwoman of the committee, turned to the superintendent to ask if he felt he had the flexibility he needed without the amendment. She did not get a yes or no.

“Mr. Fantini accurately states that this policy as it is worded tonight rules out the possibility of having leveled classes, and in that respect — in the respect leveled classes are not one of the menu of options we can choose from — that’s less flexibility than having the complete menu of options we could choose from,” Young said. Then, to Fantini: “Is that right?”

“We put this policy forward several weeks ago because we believed in it. That has not changed. We still believe this is a good policy,” Young said later. “Mr. Fantini’s question was, does this policy afford us maximum flexibility? The answer was no. That’s true — we can’t do anything we want, there are certain guidelines.”

But he also agreed with McGovern’s take on the situation: that while it’s acceptable to have higher-level courses in high school, where an advanced placement class looks good on a transcript being sent off to colleges, he had a “real problem with saying to an 11-year-old, ‘Sorry, you’re not smart enough to be in this class.’ I can’t think of a better way to extinguish the spark in an 11-year-old’s eyes.”

Patty Nolan, Alice Turkel and Mervan Osborne all expressed varying degrees of confusion over the existence of the amendment, and the confusion didn’t decrease as the discussion went on for more than 20 minutes.

“I don’t think I’m in support of this added language. I didn’t even know the superintendent was looking for more flexibility,” said Osborne, who hadn’t even been opposed to honors classes because he’s seen them work well in middle school settings. “We’ve gotten our marching orders from the people who are going to be delivering the content.”

Despite Harding’s insistence that “math is different” and that the urgency of the district’s math problem argued for realizing ideologies shouldn’t be set in stone, the amendment failed 4-3. It was followed by another 6-1 vote affirming the unamended academic challenge policy, with Nolan again the holdout.

Other actions

Math got extensive discussion during the meeting, with another three items moving the district back to ensuring that within five years all students arrived at the high school having completed Algebra I — an accomplishment only one in seven district students can now claim. The math curriculum returns to the committee’s agenda with a roundtable and meeting in May.

Hiring was also addressed Tuesday, as four deans brought on to oversee academics at each of the four new upper schools made their first official appearances in the afternoon — begging the question of which teachers they would be working with. When asked when the district’s teachers would know who would be working at the new schools, and when nontenured teachers would know if they had jobs waiting for them in the fall, the district’s executive director for human resources, Barbara J. Allen, said she knew it was a “period of high anxiety” for teachers but that the process was well under way.

Tenured and contract teachers were asked Feb. 15 to declare whether they were planning to retire or go on leaves of absence, Allen said. March 15 is the deadline for teacher evaluations, which decides rehiring and contract renewal decisions — especially since the upper schools have performance thresholds that must be met — and also the date for the required certifications to be handed in to the district’s human resources department. There is already a fairly firm projection for who will be staffing schools in the fall, she said, but these factors could shake things up. April 30 remains the target date for final teacher assignments.

The new heads of school are Jamel Adkins-Sharif, assistant principal at the city’s Tobin and Tobin Montessori School, for the upper school to be located on Vassal Lane; Mirko Chardin,a Randolph High School assistant principal, for the one on Putnam Avenue; Manuel Fernandez, principal of a Taunton middle school, for Cambridge Street; and Ralph Watson, principal of a Swampscott middle school, for Rindge Avenue. They assume their positions full time on July 1, according to a letter from Young dated Feb. 9.

This post was updated March 9, 2012, to clarify that co-teachers for sixth-graders would be only in math classes.