Nearly one month after Superintendent Eileen Williams said a decision to alter leveling instruction for Duxbury students would not be done “in a rushed manner,” school committee members unanimously approved changes regarding courses for students in grades five through eight on Wednesday night. Nearly one month after Superintendent Eileen Williams said a decision to alter leveling instruction for Duxbury students would not be done “in a rushed manner,” school committee members unanimously approved changes regarding courses for students in grades five through eight on Wednesday night.

During their monthly meeting, the group heard a presentation from the level research committee, a group of parents, teachers and administrators charged with looking at the practice of assigning students to different levels of instruction for over a year.  After over an hour of both presentation and discussion, Williams recommended the changes and the committee members approved them 6-0.{sidebar id=4}

In February, Williams told the Clipper that while a presentation would be made to the committee in March, a decision on the level research committee’s recommendations would not necessarily be made that night.

“When and if the school committee votes to change [leveling], I don’t think anyone knows,” she said.  “This is not being looked at in a rushed manner.”

Wednesday’s presentation began with Alden reading teacher Barbara Grenadir discussing the goal of the committee to improve teaching and learning for all students in Duxbury and how there are high expectations for all children from MCAS testing to No Child Left Behind legislation.

She also outlined the various research the committee has done investigating national research regarding learning/brain theory, ability grouping and teaching strategies.  A review of this literature, she said, showed that all students benefit from access to a high level of instructional practices and favored expanding learning opportunities for all students for learning so that they can overcome weaknesses and so all students are appropriately challenged.

Grenadir also said that Duxbury had longstanding, successful and challenging “unleveled,” or heterogeneously grouped, classes through middle school in subjects like science, social studies and reading.{sidebar id=1}

Alden Principal Susan Skeiber then explained how teachers and staff at the school began to investigate the practice of leveling four years ago, wondering how the impact of separating students by moderate or fast learning ability was beneficial.

“Kids in a moderate level start to believe they can’t do it,” she said.  “It’s a pretty serious thing for kids. An eight- or 10-year-old kid believing they can’t do something sends a bad message.”

A pilot math program began, said Skeiber, where students were not broken into levels, but maintained their same classroom and were all expected to meet high expectations.

“In terms of best practices, we found that teaching them all to a high level and exposing them all to high expectations ëinvited them all to the dance,’” she said, adding that students who excelled could take lessons further while those who needed help received it.

DMS reading teacher Heather Kelleher outlined current levels at her school and Alden where there are various classes of various levels.  For example, in fifth grade, there are six level one (fast pace) classes and four level two (moderate paced) classes in both math and English. 

Kelleher also outlined research of other school districts in Massachusetts, specifically those that had the highest percentage of proficient and advanced scores on the MCAS test.  What the group found is that many English classes are heterogeneously grouped with support provided for lower-level learners and just as many separate math into levels. Kelleher said that the committee is recommending that grade five math be “unleveled” so students all learn together, that grade six math not change from its current two-level system and that grade seven will maintain three levels.  Grade eight will change to a three level system, losing one level of instruction.

She added that in grade seven, everyone will learn pre-Algebra skills, but in different doses and that all children will complete Algebra I by the end of their eighth grade instruction.

Other recommendations by the committee for “phase one” of the 2004-2005 school year included “unleveling” grade five reading, grade six English/language arts and maintaining two levels of English in grades seven and eight.  Phase one will also include collecting data to assess student progress and achievement.

Scannell said there was some trepidation on the part of grade seven and eight English teachers to “unlevel” and they requested the opportunity to look at different districts, including a Wednesday afternoon site visit to a Wellesley school.

Phase one also includes implementing heterogeneous instruction of grade eight science, a move overwhelmingly supported by DMS science teacher Tim Cipriani.

While school committee members asked questions of all the presenters and commended their work, parents in the crowd spoke the loudest.

A few parents expressed their concern that higher achieving students would not be challenged.  Several members of the level research committee pointed to data and their own experiences to maintain that those who want to excel still can in unleveled courses.

Parent M.L. Nichols expressed her concern regarding the math program in the elementary school.

“We hear that this program is being reviewed for yearsÖbut it seems nothing ever happens,” she said.  “Where is your assessment of what we are doing well in math and what we are not doing well?”

Assistant Superintendent John Kerrigan said that the evaluation is ongoing and that the schools are gathering specific data.  He then discussed how his focus regarding leveling was on results, most notably regarding MCAS.

“[Children] bring different strengths to the classroom [and we’ll] take advantage of these different strengths to make everyone better,” he said.

Nichols said that her concern was not about leveling, but instead the curriculum and the need for it to educate students and asked again what the school system was doing to improve it, adding that she was shocked to hear committee member and math teacher Heather Delcore says that this is the first time in 10 years the program has been looked at.

K-6 Curriculum Coordinator Karen Fruzetti told Nichols that there will be parent workshops to address the curriculum in the coming weeks and invited her and other parents to attend.