Panel weighs in on leveling in schools

NASHUA – As the school board prepares to examine whether leveling should continue at the middle schools, board members heard Tuesday night from those working directly with students.

A panel of administrators and teachers talked about how leveling works in each of their schools as part of a broader discussion about the state of the middle school concept in the city.

Some said they would welcome a review of the district’s current policy requiring leveling at the middle schools.

Dan O’Donnell, an assistant principal at Fairgrounds Middle School, said if the district wants to adopt a middle school concept, there needs to be a discussion about considering grouping of students heterogeneously at the middle schools.That would mean mixing students in classes regardless of ability. Currently, students are grouped homogeneously, which means they are grouped by their perceived ability.

“The biggest thing with heterogeneous grouping is that you’re providing more challenges,” he said.

Starting in the sixth grade and continuing through high school, students are grouped into three levels – honors, extension and foundation classes. District policy requires that students be grouped by ability in the middle schools.

O’Donnell said all of the middle school conferences and literature he has read suggests that mixed grouping is the most effective way of reaching all students. O’Donnell said he also knows it’s a controversial subject.

“Quite honestly, there are parents and teachers on different sides of that whole argument,” he said.

He also acknowledged that it isn’t necessarily an either-or argument. There should be opportunities for accelerated instruction for high-achieving students, he said.

The meeting focused on the progress of moving to a middle school concept, which the school district adopted when it moved ninth-graders out of the junior highs and into the high schools and moved sixth-graders out of the elementary schools.

Since 2004, middle schools have instructed students in grades six through eight.

Charles Gray, a seventh-grade teacher at Fairgrounds Middle School, said the atmosphere completely changed with the ninth-graders no longer in the buildings and replaced with the sixth-graders.

“(Our students) are now kids the whole time we have them,” he said.

Tuesday night’s discussion covered a number of different issues, from parental involvement to discipline to school atmosphere.

The panel, which also included parents, also talked about the importance of creating teams of students and teachers at the schools. Denise Rock, a teacher at Elm Street, said having teams gives teachers a chance to communicate about issues with students.

“With teaming, we’re addressing problems before they become the big problem,” she said.

However, several times throughout the meeting, the discussion came back to the concept of leveling.

In June, a report by The Telegraph showed that Hispanic students and poor students are far more likely to be placed in foundation level classes at the middle schools and high schools.

Pennichuck Middle School Principal Paul Asbell said one of the problems with leveling is that once students are placed in low-level classes at an early age, that’s typically where they stay.

When you look at how many students move up, “it’s not very many,” he said. “They generally stay at the same level.”

Diane Levesque, an assistant principal at Elm Street Middle School, said students are encouraged to challenge themselves and are allowed to take classes in different subjects at different levels.

“We never refuse family and student motivation to participate in a higher level,” she said.

Sarah Reinhardt, a reading specialist at Pennichuck, recalled a situation where a group of students who had been placed in extension classes complained because they said they were “foundation kids.”

“We give them ideas we don’t need to,” she said.

Prior to 2004, leveled classes were designated by numbers – one being the highest and four the lowest. When the district eliminated the lowest level in 2004, it came up with the names for the levels.

“But no matter what you call them, you’re labeling them,” O’Donnell said.

School board member Robert Hallowell said the issue of leveling would be brought up soon at the curriculum committee level. Hallowell, who is chairman of the committee, said he is skeptical of doing away with leveling.

He said there are also studies that show the higher-achieving students suffer as a result.

“I don’t want the top-level students to essentially pay for the increases of the students at the bottom,” he said.

It’s not yet known when the committee will take up the issue.

O’Donnell said the key would be differentiating instruction within the classrooms. He also said if the district were to change its policy to heterogeneous grouping at the middle schools, it would require preparation and professional development.

The panel was also asked to reflect on what is working at the middle schools, what needs improvement and what administration and the school board can do better support the middle schools.

The panel agreed that an advisory program for students is working effectively at all of the schools. Helen Honorow, president of the PTO at Pennichuck, said there is more of a focus at creating programs for parents at all of the middle schools.

Mike Fredericksen, assistant principal at Elm Street, said meeting the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law is one of the biggest challenges.

All three of the middle schools have been designated as “in need of improvement.”

Rock, a science teacher, said technology is severely lacking at her school.

There was a sense of agreement that more meetings focused specifically on middle schools would help. Asbell encouraged the school board to think of middle school as a distinct level of education.

“We’re the middle child and easily forgotten,” he said.