Explanation given for SMS class changes

By Melanie Speicher - mspeicher@aimmediamidwest.com

SIDNEY — Concerns about the changes for writing and reading instruction for sixth- and seventh-grade students at Sidney Middle School were raised by parents (see related story on Page 1) during Monday night’s Sidney City Schools Board of Education meeting.

“Three weeks ago, Brooke (Gessler, curriculum coordinator) distributed building strategies to turn around our report card results,” said Superintendent John Scheu. “For the Sidney Middle School plan of action, Principal Diane Voress and the teachers collaborated together to turn around the English and language arts scores, especially for sixth- and seventh-grades.”

Before the parents voiced their concerns, Voress explained how the decision was made to use part of the science and social studies class time for reading and writing lessons.

“The goal behind the change at the schools is the academic success for the students,” said Voress. “The teachers and administration worked together. The plan was discussed and decisions were made for all the students.”

Referring to the action plan submitted to the board of education during its Oct. 16 meeting, Voress said the teachers and administrators at the middle school researched three years of state report card data and looked at similar sized schools to determine how much time was allotted to reading and writing. Increasing the time devoted to reading and writing, she said, will help increase the district’s report card scores.

At Piqua Middle School, students receive 88 minutes of English/Language Arts (ELA) per day. At Bellefontaine Middle School, they receive 64 minutes of ELA instruction per day. Sidney Middle School students receive 46 minutes of ELA instruction per day.

“Due to the rigors of the state testing in reading and writing each year, we know that a change has to occur,” said Voress. “We must have time to teach the reading, both literature and informational texts, and the writing with greater depth and practice.”

Those skills, said Voress, are needed by all students to succeed in the future.

Voress said they looked at the current resources at the middle school during the set school day to make a change from where the students are to where they need to be.

The change to curriculum, said Voress, will be teaching reading standards while in other subjects (science and social studies).

“Everybody on the team agrees we have to spend more time on reading and writing,” said Voress. “With the time and resources we have this is the decision we had to make.”

Seventh-grade teacher Natalie Stewart told the board and audience that she loves teaching ELA “but it’s a big cross to bear.”

Each ELA standard, she said, has multiple levels of student learning and goals to meet — all of which has to be done in 46 minutes each school day.

“I’ll never be able to cover it all,” she said. “So I pick and choose. We have from September to April to teach all those things.” This is the time frame prior to the state required testing for students which is included in the report card results.

If a student doesn’t grasp something in the standard, she said, she’ll go back and help the student gain the necessary skill.

“We want them to feel good about reading and writing,” said Stewart.

She concluded her remarks with a quote from Mandy Hale: “Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.”

Intervention specialist Jamie Peining said during last year’s school year, an additional math class was added to the school day. She taught three classes.

“Eighty-eight percent of the students made gains on their scores,” she said. “I taught nine whole standards with indepth lessons because the math teachers didn’t have time. We’re hoping the reading time will increase the scores also.”

The district has added NWEA MAP data to the pool of information used for how a student is doing in school. The program pinpoints where reading assistance is needed.

Carmen Heintz, a sixth-grade teacher, said students are spending two days of reading information lessons in science class and three days of reading literature in social studies class.

Voress said a letter about the changes was given to parents during the parent-teacher conference. Parents who didn’t attend the conference also received the letter.

The letter explains that adding the two math classes to every sixth- and seventh-grade schedule showed growth in the state test scores.

“The need to do the same in Reading and Writing is evident by our scores. Starting Quarter 2, we will be adding Reading time for our 6th and 7th grade students during their already scheduled Science and Social Students classes and for our 5th grade students during their Social Studies class,” Voress wrote in the letter to parents. “These subjects have Reading standards built in to their content standards but we are going to take it a step further and instead of ‘using’ the standard, the teacher will be ‘teaching’ the skill within the Reading standard. We hope this will benefit them in all their subjects throughout their educational career.”

“Sixty-one percent of the parents attended the conference,” said Voress. “It’s been suggested we tired to keep this in the dark. I went to the teachers to see how best to handle the communication to the parents about why the change was made.

“We’ll have to agree to disagree with what works best,” she said. “We did the best we could to open up the communication with the parents.”

Board member Mandi Croft said, “You read in all subjects. Could you add the standards without taking away from science and social studies?”

“We’re not taking away from science and social students,” said Voress. “The time is being reallocated. I checked with Brett Bickel, (high school government teacher) and we don’t test in the fourth and sixth grades. The eighth-grade social studies standards go to the high school. The sixth- and seventh-grade standards (world history) don’t go to the high school.

“We’re not cutting anything,” Voress continued. “We’re addressing where we are at reading and writing in the sixth- and seventh-grade.”

Sixth-grade science teacher Leslie Phlipot added her comments about the change.

“I cannot in good conscious tell you we can do it all,” said Phlipot. “ “I help Kevin Turner (eighth-grade science teacher) meet the grade 6-8 standards. I have my standards to do meet too.”

Phlipot explained the differences between the middle school programs and Piqua Middle School’s program.

“The 88 minutes Piqua has for ELA — they have double our staff,” said Phlipot. “They have four ELA teachers. We have two. They have three math teachers. We have two. They have three social studies teachers. We have two. The staffing disparity is huge.”

“We know this isn’t ideal,” said Voress. “If we had more resources, we wouldn’t be changing. We have to work with what we have.”

Croft questioned the double math classes. Could one be used for reading, she asked.

“We saw a 17 percent growth with the second math period,” said Ken Kellner, a sixth-grade math teacher. “We grew everybody except the lowest of the low.”

Scheu said more time for the ELA is being added based on test scores.

“During our seven-hour day, if another block of ELA was added, something would have to change,” said Scheu. “Some of our students take two of the three music programs offered. If we do a double period ELA like we do the double math, then the music offering would be off the table. Unless you want to add an additional hour (to the school day) to do it.”

Croft questioned if the Workforce Academy is still pass or fail and whether that class could be used for ELA time.

“The Workforce Academy is a building block for the high school,” said Scheu. “We want to build up our students for success. At the high school, the students get a grade.”

Croft said when she first heard about the middle school’s proposal she didn’t visualize time “going away from other areas. You can’t come back from that passion for science if it’s cut back.”

Teacher/parent Jamie Barnes has a sixth-grade student.

“If he can’t comprehend it, he’s not going to be successful down the road,” said Barnes. “You’re pulling some of the content for social studies and science work to focus on the reading aspect.”

Croft said home environment plays a role in a student’s learning. They learn in a different way than other students.

“You can teach reading and writing in those other classes (science and social studies) without taking away the other content,” said Croft.

Board member Bob Smith questioned whether a letter to the parents was the best way to communicate the changes in the classes at the middle school.

“What we are saying is ELA is more important to Sidney City Schools than social studies and science,” said Smith. “We’re also saying that if we send more time in a subject it will improve out scores. But the opposite is in time it will hurt our social students and science scores. We’re saying it’s OK to trade learning in this area for learning in other areas.”

Voress acknowledged that all the standards can’t be covered during a 46 minute class.

“Where do we make the changes,” she said. “This is what we have to work with.”

When questioned about the changes in the classes, Gessler said her role is “to provide support resources for the teachers.

“I don’t have the authority at the building levels to make decisions,” said Gessler. “I have to entrust she’s (Voress) making the best decisions for her building.”

Board member Paul Heins said, “The board needs direction on how to help solve this problem in the long term. Do we increase staff? Do we increase the school day? If we cut the science stuff now, we’re going to pay for it later. When we cut staffing (years ago due to financial problems) our test scores went down.”

Board President Bill Ankney said, “How you get there, that’s what we’re paying you to do. You have a plan of action now and it should be re-evaluated at the end of the year. Then you can look at a long term solution and work on a plan for next year.”

By Melanie Speicher


Reach the writer at 937-538-4822.

Reach the writer at 937-538-4822.