Orientation class under board scrutiny

NASHUA – Teachers and administrators from both high schools say it is too early to determine whether a freshmen orientation program should remain a semester-long course.

“That’s a really difficult question to answer right now because the first semester isn’t even over yet,” Margaret Reynolds, director of community and adult education, said after Monday night’s instruction committee meeting.

Members of the committee and other members of the Board of Education expressed disappointment with the lack of data available to determine whether progress is being made in Freshman Seminar, a new course required of all incoming ninth-graders. The course covers a wide spectrum of topics, including outlining a four-year plan of action for students and assistance in scheduling classes.

The course is not required for graduation, but all incoming freshmen must enroll. Teachers and administrators spent three years preparing the curriculum for the course and it was piloted last year before full implementation took place in September.

Many of the teachers and administrators at the Monday meeting also attended a Board of Education meeting two weeks earlier, where they defended the course. Freshman Seminar came under scrutiny when Kim Shaw, chairwoman of the board, made a motion at an earlier instruction committee meeting to suspend it until its curriculum could be appropriately reviewed.

Shaw reiterated Monday that it was never her intention to cancel the course.

“It’s not on the chopping block,” she said.

Theresa McGuinness, head of the freshmen academy at Nashua North, said an in-depth survey for parents, students and teachers is in the works and will be administered after the first semester of the course is complete in January.

But board member Scott Cote said because the surveys are still unfinished, teachers and administrators are behind schedule.

“This goes to my feeling that this program is a little bit loose,” Cote said.

Board member Jack Kelley agreed, saying he was “upset” not to see at least a draft of the survey.

Shaw said she fears that there is a lack of “supervision” and that the course could turn into a “glorified study hall.” She added that there is a perception among parents that their children are wasting time in the course.

Edwina Kwan, chairwoman of the instruction committee, said parents have complained about a lack of consistency in different sections of the courses. There are currently more than 500 freshmen enrolled in nearly 30 sections.

“I’ve heard that some are working on SAT preparation and others are just watching movies,” Kwan said.

Tim Kelley, principal of Nashua South, said he has not heard those negative comments, but that maintaining the integrity of the course is imperative. He added that while there are consistency issues, they would be worked out before next year through a re-evaluation process.

When asked whether the course should be reduced to a quarter semester or a summer program. Kelley replied, “If I have to answer now . . . it would be a semester.”

Mark Detering, a science teacher at Nashua South and an instructor of one of the sections, said he spends much the course working on writing skills. In his five years of teaching ninth-graders, Detering said he has never seen writing levels improve so drastically in a matter of months.

Cynthia Matte, dean of academic affairs, said the district would have until about March, when schedules for the 2005-2006 school year are finalized, to alter the length of the course.