Schools see ‘accelerated learning’ change, with student diversity the next challenge
The district’s Academic Challenge and Enrichment program, created two years ago with a major focus of working with “advanced learners,” will become part of the Office of Student Services, program manager Paula Feynman announced Tuesday at the School Committee meeting. This was seen as good news for the program and for all students in the district by Feynman and many committee members, although it was clear many challenges for the program remain.
Since starting in September 2012, after the passage of the committee’s Academic Challenge policy, Feynman has reported to Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk. As of January, the office will be folded into the Office of Student Services under Assistant Superintendent Victoria Greer.
In a presentation following up on her August report to the committee, Feynman said she welcomed this as a way to formalize the notion that her charge is to provide adequate academic challenges to all students, including but not exclusively “advanced learners.”
The move should also provide more resources, and fits with an organizational shift undertaken by Greer – symbolized by the change of name from the “Office of Special Education” to one suggesting the department seeks to support all student needs.
Committee members congratulated Feynman, with committee member Fran Cronin saying the move and Feynman’s comments “changed my perception” to feeling the mission now is “How do we advance students wherever they are on the spectrum of learning? I think that is very different than saying ‘We are servicing accelerated learners’ or saying we have an ‘academic challenge program.’” She was optimistic that the move will help provide the social and emotional support Feynman said advanced learners need because, like students who are struggling in an academic area, they can feel frustrated and isolated if not adequately challenged.
Member Kathleen Kelly also welcomed the idea and “do love the idea” of the program being folded into the Office of Student Services.
Saying “a rigorous, differentiated curriculum” is the front line in providing academic challenge for all students, Feynman explained that much of her work has been in curriculum development and supporting teachers in developing and implementing appropriate challenges. Feynman’s presentation provided an assessment of her work to date.
A significant component has been the development of a tool for identifying and providing adequate support for “accelerated learners,” who are deemed to be working significantly above grade level in one or more areas. Originally, Feynman used a “Subject Acceleration Protocol” in which a school either decided to accelerate a child to another grade level in a subject or not.
“We realized that there needed to be a range of enrichment opportunities rather than that one binary decision,” Feynman said. That led to the development of a different tool – an “Enriched Learning Plan” that includes a spectrum of services in addition to grade acceleration.
This also meant broadening the definition from “gifted student” to the idea that students had “gifted behaviors.”
Elephant in the room
Despite Feynman’s stressing that “the most important piece of our approach to advanced learning is to ensure that every student feels challenged by a rigorous, standards-based curriculum in every subject area,” committee members and even the parent support group expressed concern about the low numbers of Enriched Learning Plans and lack of diversity among those students.
Member Mervan Osborne spoke of his “perception concern” that there are racial and ethnic and cultural undertows “that you are all aware of,” he said. “There is a perception that this is a white movement. I know it’s not.”
While noting his respect for the work being done, “I think this would be more effective,” he said, “if we get more direct. Yank up that undertow. Challenge these perceptions publicly.”
Cronin and Kelly similarly expressed hope that folding the office into the OSS would expand the diversity of the identified students, and member Fred Fantini expressed some frustration in having to wait, saying, “We need to get to data-driven and content differentiation quickly … I’m not waiting for a 10-year cultural shift.”
Freedom Baird, founder of the parent support group the Cambridge Advanced Learning Association, praised Feynman’s work but said that she needed more support, because she “cannot be in every school every day helping every student with advanced learning needs.”
Less than 1 percent of the K-8 students have ELPs. In 2012, Baird said, the association estimated that the need was about 8 percent based on general population studies, suggesting there were 300 or more students in grades K-8 missing from the program.
Since her organization of 131 parents has a membership “of every color, representing a wide range of ethnicities,” the true pool of accelerated learners is actually very diverse, she said.
“Advanced learning needs are found in all children,” Baird said. “In children from underrepresented groups: girls, children of color, low-income students. Many of these are often not identified due to pressures of stereotype from others or even from themselves.” She pointed to the 79 percent boys among the existing ELPs – 30 of 38 students – saying that may be partly because boys’ behavioral issues may “manifest more when they have an advanced learning need that is going unmet, and the girls are flying under the radar.”
“We don’t just care just about the students whose parents are advocating for them, we care about every student,” Baird said.
Member Patty Nolan agreed Feynman should be identifying goals for number of students.
“Our goal should be that at least 100 kids should have ELPs,” Nolan said, using an estimate of only 2 percent of the population. She hoped to see target goals by race and gender within another year or two.
Nolan and Baird agreed again that Algebra I being offered in all five middle schools is progress, but noted Cambridge still falls behind surrounding districts in terms of students who finish Algebra I in eighth grade. The district will fall short of a 22 percent goal for this year, Nolan said.
Feynman agreed that there is more work to be done. Her presentation of future challenges included a need to increase the numbers and diversity of students with ELPs and to raise the numbers of students taking Algebra I in eighth grade, as well as broadening the understanding of accelerated learner characteristics among staff and students and improving curriculum differentiation. She also hoped to break down misperceptions and myths about skills, such as getting more students to take part in a Math Olympiad even if they don’t think of themselves as “math people.”
CALA representative Diane Roseman took the opportunity to present the group’s requests for budget considerations:
Hire six accelerated-learning specialists to be in schools – including two for upper schools and two for K-5 schools, based on models used in Brookline and Framingham. Framingham, Roseman said, “spends more on AL despite spending only $16,000 per student,” compared with Cambridge’s $25,000.
More professional development for teachers on accelerated learning issues.
Printed resource guides for all parents.
More advanced math classes at the high school to keep accelerated learners from having to leave the school to attend college-level classes, or, alternatively, help for students in attending college classes.
Transportation for middle schoolers taking math classes at the high school.
Baird also repeated calls for more capacity in high school math classes. As the district makes progress in seventh- and eighth-graders advancing in math, many are increasingly shut out of classes they need once they reach the high school, because the classes are full.
Committee members expressed support for professional development and a resource guide, which Osborne called “short dollars” that could accomplish a lot. But on staffing, Fantini said, “I think you need to come up with a Plan B,” and urged the group to try to integrate their needs into “existing models” such as the call for 30 instructional coaches “rather than adding another layer.”
Unanimously approved were an amendment to a teacher and staff contract and a recommendation setting the percentage of paid-lunch student parameters for the Tobin Montessori 3-year-old grade and Special Start program. The committee also accepted $1,200 in miscellaneous gifts to the Cambridgeport School; a $10,000 Race to the Top grant toward curriculum development; and two grants totaling $83,500 for support for English-language learners and funding field trips.
Also awarded was a $120,000 contract to the East End House for out-of-school services for targeted students, paid for by a No Child Left Behind grant. The program’s goal is to serve 70 students; right now it has 30.
In addition, the committee passed a motion by Mayor David Maher to vote on a successor contract for Superintendent Jeffrey Young, passed 6-1 with Nolan voting against.
The following were passed unanimously: a motion by Richard Harding and Osborne to receive a strategic plan for increasing staff diversity by February; a motion by Nolan to request that, when “practical,” food for functions and meetings be provided by students from the culinary program at the Rindge School of Technical Arts; and a motion by Harding and Nolan congratulating the students of CRLS who participated in the walkout on Monday as a protest of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., and urging that no repercussions from leaving school result.
Failed by a vote of 3-4, with Nolan, Harding and Maher voting in favor, was a motion by Nolan requesting a review of the district’s “current practices with respect to substitute” teachers and “ways to ensure the effectiveness of substitutes.” In discussion Nolan cited increasing use of substitute teachers with the Response to Intervention program pulling lead teachers out of the classroom, and “some school districts” moving to “consciously professionalize the role of substitute teachers.”
There will be a third public hearing by the Budget Subcommittee from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday so the public can comment on planning for the upcoming budget.