Board Reviews Effectiveness of Greenwich 9th Grade English, Magnet Programs

Are Students Being Challenged? How To Balance The District?


Adding A Level Of English Is Not A Solution

When the Greenwich Board of Education met last week, they received a recommendation from the administration to maintain two levels of 9th grade English at Greenwich High School.

"Easy to say; hard to do"

Board Chairman Leslie Moriarty said it is the district's "responsibility to meet needs of all kids" and recognized that the administration "did what the board requested" in coming back with the recommendation. She went onto  acknowledge that when addressing the "overall goal of talking about rigor,that it is difficult to make a decision quickly." Therefore, the board asked the administration to continue to meet with parents who have concerns and to keep the topic "on the radar screen."

The administration undertook an analysis of The GHS 9th Grade Honors English Course, in response to repeated requests of parents. GHS Headmaster Chris Winters said that the recommendation to maintain the two levels was born out of the “best evidence we have” while recognizing that data gathered was being looked at “through a particular lens."

Respectful, But Concerns Persist

Superintendent Dr. William McKersie stated that the "ALP parents have been very clear and respectful in this debate" and went on to acknowledge that "we do need to get better in Greenwich about our systematic handling of these students." He continued to clarify that in addition to 9th grade Language Arts, ALP parents have also expressed concerns about "spotty areas in middle school."

Parents Are Part Of The Resolution

While board member and former ALP Coordinator, Barbara O'Neill, called the effort that went into the recommendation a "good beginning, but (it needs to) go further." O'Neill suggested the next steps, which were acknowledged by Winters as good ones, to include the surveying the students in English 112 in addition to parents stating that the parents "are an important part of this."

The newly re-elected board vice chairman also would like to see the survey re-administered to the freshmen in the spring and include questions on house identity as well as clarify the degree of difficulty. "How do kids interpret challenge?" she asked.

Imbalanced and Non-Magnetic?

In the next step in crafting a response to the CT State Department of Education, the board received an update on the issue of Racial Imbalance, which is intertwined with the district's magnet schools. Two of the 4 magnet elementary schools, The International School at Dundee (ISD), New Lebanon School, offer the International Baccalaureate Programmes and 3 of the schools are also Title I.

Where Are Students Attracted To And Why?

An analysis of the effectiveness and attractiveness of the GPS Magnet School program reveals that lower levels of applications and increasing student populations in catchment areas are impacting their ability to achieve the goal of racial balance within the district.

While the number of students placed in the programs has increased from 71 in 2008-2009 to 87 in 2012-2013, primarily due to 11 magnet students at New Lebanon which opened in 2009-2010, the number of applicants for the programs has decreased from 415 to 228 over the same five-year period.

Expansion Rate vs. Seat Availability

Further negating the impact of the programs on racial balance is the fact that the percentage of minority students within the Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon districts continue to expand at a rate higher than the rest of the district. Hamilton Avenue is now at 64% and New Lebanon at 68%, up 6% and 14% respectively, over the last five years.

Combined with fewer seats being available for magnet programs, the net impact of the magnet programs on racial imbalance were both negligible at less than a 1% impact. As the report highlights, "under current class sizes and building capacities, it would not be possible to racially balance either Hamilton Avenue or New Lebanon even if every available magnet seat were assigned to a white student."

It was noted however that the program did help balance facility utilization by drawing students from highly populated schools such as North Mianus and New Lebanon. There are more students residing in the New Lebanon attendance area, 276, than there are seats at the school, 273. However, with 46 students leaving the area to attend other magnet programs, it enabled the New Lebanon magnet program to attract students from outside the area.

The International School at Dundee was the most effective from a facilities viewpoint by having 77 of its 151 magnet students coming from the North Mianus attendance area. Without that shift, the school would be operating at 121% of capacity. It was noted that ISD, "conceived as a magnet school, has 40% of its capacity available for magnet students, and features a strong magnet theme that is attractive to parents residing in other attendance areas."

The next steps in the overarching discussion and analysis will be to collect data on enrollment and housing patterns and interface the numbers with the district's facility utilization figures.

Is STEM The Answer?

The dialogue on magnets is expanding. Science Program Coordinator Sheila Civale reported on a new magnet theme under consideration, STEM or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

As described by Civale, a STEM program is more than the subjects' content but rather a focus on the concepts and methodologies which can be learned from these subjects.

As examples, science would teach inquiry or the asking of questions.  Engineering is about design and building or modeling. Mathematics is about problem solving or learning about patterns, and technology education focuses on technology or literacy.

A STEM program has consistent goals of also learning about STEM-related issues in society, understanding the impact of technological advances and acquiring the skills of independent learning.  With many scientific and engineering challenges facing the world, the program is well aligned with the needs of society.

Civale's report states that the Greenwich Public School System has already started a transformation of its science program by not only updating the programs' content but by "fundamentally changing the way science is taught. Thus, GPS is in an excellent position to consider STEM Education and its impact on student success."

Back To The Budget

The Board is set to meet Thursday, Dec. 13 for a budget meeting at Cos Cob School. This is the last dedicated meeting to review the 2013-2014 budget before their final vote on Dec. 20.


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