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Thursday, May 5, 2016

First public grade-alike meeting evokes emotion

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Nearly 80 people gathered Monday night in the Fairview Elementary School gymnasium and sat at the tables students eat lunch at every school day. The topic at hand during the gathering, which at times appeared to be a neighborhood get-together, was restructuring the district's three public elementaries.

Spencer Superintendent Terry Hemann facilitated the meeting. Committee members who have studied the matter and four of five Spencer school board members were also in attendance, offering insights and listening to comments.

Perceived pros and cons associated with both the district's current elementary structure and a proposed grade-alike system were shared.

The discussion is not unfamiliar to Spencer residents. The grade-alike concept was first researched locally in 2000. Following a unanimous recommendation for the district to stay with its current grade configuration in its elementary buildings, committee members recommended the issue be re-evaluated.

The question of whether Spencer should pursue a grade-alike concept was broached again during the 2005 district budgeting process, causing a community-wide discussion to reconvene. Board members were presented with 1,145 signatures in November 2006, from people requesting a vote against the grade-alike proposal and to leave the district's traditional elementary grade structure as is. The board's ensuing 3-to-2 vote favored the public's sentiment at the time. It also included a directive to "proceed to plan for implementation of the alternate avenues, as recommended by the administration, to improve and unify the instructional practices across the three elementary buildings."

The possible elementary-restructuring matter was re-introduced this fall.

As Hemann described the district's proposed grade-alike elementary structure Monday night, he mentioned special education students would be educated in each building. Based on the new plan, Child's Garden through first grade students would be housed in the Johnson Elementary building, second and third grade students would be served in the Fairview Elementary building, fourth and fifth grade pupils would be hosted in the Lincoln Elementary building.

As Hemann and study committee members compared Spencer's past and present elementary structures, Johnson fifth grade teacher Amy Thompson described a situation in which students are currently receiving similar experiences. Teachers have also increased their collaboration and discussion time between the three buildings, she added.

When Lucas DeWitt addressed a future with grade-alike elementary schools, he stated, "Your current structure is very good."

Spencer's elementary principal then delved into the uncomfortable situation he's had to tackle the last few years, of reassigning students to other buildings if their grade level was over capacity at one building.

During a question-and-answer portion of the meeting in which committee members answered questions they believed the public wanted addressed, Hemann stated, "Overall, staff are supportive of a grade-alike system. Last year, many elementary staff members signed letters supporting a grade-alike system and submitted them to the school board."

He then read recent survey results from 61 staff members showing that 77 percent approve moving to a grade-alike system.

Questions pertaining to the transportation of students and how children might benefit from grade-alike elementary schools (below) were also answered. When the question was broached of what the financial impact of moving to a grade-alike structure would mean for the district's coffers, Hemann said, "While there may be some initial expenses with making a transition to a grade-alike structure, there will be more sharing of materials and resources within grade levels."

"The district does not anticipate any major expenses with this change," he added.

The public's questions were answered during the gathering's final segment.

Serena Rustad, the mother of four students open enrolled into the district, explained she very carefully chose Fairview Elementary School for her children to attend.

"I went to several different towns to choose a school I felt was going to be what my family was looking for," she said with a quivering voice. " ... My daughter was a victim of being switched to a different school. It hurt her more than I can tell you. She's in fourth grade now and she was switched in her first grade year. She is still terrified to make that change again. She does not want to do it. Grade-alike has her so scared it makes her sick."

Rustad drew the evening's first round of applause when she asked if other options, such as teachers changing buildings, had been looked at.

Tara Lopez queried whether restructuring Spencer's elementary buildings would really improve students' test scores.

"The committee talked about research and, in the end, the decision was made we're going to focus on what we feel is best for kids of Spencer," Hemann replied. "I think you can find research both in support and to negate grade-alike. You can find whatever you're going to look for. There's not a lot of data out there that's going to show it either way."

While another woman articulated concerns about children being bullied, singled out and then "stuck" with tormenting peers, mother Kashia Nolin shared she has four children who attend classes at Johnson Elementary School. Her youngest, a preschool student, is blind.

"You talk about diversity and kids getting to know these special needs kids," Nolin said, "but right now the whole building knows about him. But if you separate them, only a couple years around him are going to even have exposure to him before they get to sixth grade at the middle school."

As the meeting drew to a close, Hemann told those who had gathered, "For me personally, I can deal with this any way this goes. ... Personally, after looking at this with the group and talking to other schools in other towns that have done this, I think we can provide a better education for our kids."

As participants talked of packing the Nov. 22 school board meeting room -- when board members will review and possibly decide the district's elementary structure -- they were also encouraged to telephone or write letters to board members before the meeting.

* Public meetings similar to the one conducted Monday night are also scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight at Johnson Elementary School and at 7 p.m. Thursday at Lincoln Elementary School.

Why are we considering going away from neighborhood schools?

The reality is we do not have neighborhood schools.

* Only 21 percent of elementary students walk or bike to school.

* 24 percent of elementary students ride a bus to school.

* 54 percent of elementary students are being transported in a personal vehicle.

* Preschool and KinderKids are grade-alike.

* Some of our students with disabilities can only attend at

one school.

How will my child or children benefit from grade-alike elementary schools?

* Increased interaction with students of varying abilities, cultures and interests.

* Collaboration will produce stronger teaching (in the sharing of strategies and best practices).

* Maximize teacher strengths at each grade level.

* More efficient use of resources, resulting in more opportunities for students.

* All students in a grade level transition together.

How will busing be handled in a grade-alike configuration?

* Buses would transport grade-alike students directly from each elementary school to their school of attendance.

* Elementary school shuttles would run from 8:10 - 8:20 a.m. and from 3:20 - 3:30 p.m.

* Students could have breakfast at any school beginning at 7:50 a.m. before being bused.

How will transitions between buildings be addressed?

* In order to ensure positive transitions between school buildings the district will:

-- Conduct new building orientations with families.

-- Have students spend time in their next building with teachers and in classrooms.

* Other possible activities:

-- Establish a pen-pal program with students in their next schools.

-- Classes could Skype with classes in other buildings.

*Taken from the Spencer Community Schools' elementary restructuring presentation

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I just don't think there is enough evidence to show how this will effect the kids in a positive way. Is the current system broke? If it's not broke, don't fix it.

So instead of 21% of kids walking or riding their bike to school, they will have about 5-10%. (just guessing) I thought we were supposed to promote a healthy lifestyle to these kids. I'm not sure if I under stand the bus system either. So I have to get my kids to a school so they can be bused to another school? That doesn't make much sense.

I remember when I was a kid 1st grade, I couldn't wait for the older kids to come read to us. And when I was older, i couldn't wait to get out of class to go read to the younger kids. This takes out all interaction with older and younger kids.

I think this grade alike idea should be put up for a city wide vote. If the majority of people think it should happen, then by all means change the current system. I'm tired of the minority (school board in this case) telling the majority whats best for them. It's like they think we are too dumb to know what's good for us.

-- Posted by iowafan11 on Tue, Nov 8, 2011, at 10:02 AM

If data can be found to support either view, why is the one we're not currently using suddenly so desirable? It seems like we're taking a grass is always greener view, at the expense of our children's early education.

I'd like to see a city-wide vote as well, but I think it is going to come down to petitions, and if not that, then the next school board election could get very, very interesting.

-- Posted by a-thought-or-two on Tue, Nov 8, 2011, at 10:34 AM

Years ago we had ONE nationally-recognized elementary school. That was the result of competition to be 'the best.' Now it seems like we're eliminating that competitive spirit to put every student in one lesser situation.

But for the mother who opted her kids into the Spencer system ('have to question WHY their own school system wasn't good enough...), but has a problem with her kids going from school to school over the years: By third grade I had been in THREE different schools -- all on the same complex. I loved all my teachers and campus, which had grade-alike situation. 'Don't think I was scarred in the least. Maybe your child's problem is not the school system, but the parental situation?

-- Posted by Rake Mucker on Tue, Nov 8, 2011, at 11:51 AM

I dare say that alot of the resistance is comming from parents (adults) who are afraid of change themselves. I think that a situation like this will allow for continuance of our kids being taught by some great teachers....who would have the ability to resource with others teaching similar information much easier in this setting. On the other hand it would help to make more well rounded adaptable children who will grow into change welcoming adults. If people would truely sit down and be open to hearing the positives of this they may actually find that the time and energy they are wasting on resisting the change could be better spent....ohhhh I dont know....volunteering at your childs school, helping your kids with homework, reading them a book, hosting a play date, on and on and on.

I just wonder why communities are so resistant to change....

-- Posted by AmericanDreamChasers on Tue, Nov 8, 2011, at 11:56 AM

Considering I volunteer in my child's school, help with their homework when needed, and check it every day, read them books, and host play dates, I guess I must have a lot of energy just begging to be wasted questioning if this move is best for my children. I will attend a meeting because I want to hear both sides. As of yet, I am not persuaded by what has been shared via the newspaper.

-- Posted by a-thought-or-two on Tue, Nov 8, 2011, at 12:01 PM

Bottom line is kids will (or won't)learn regardless of how you group them.

I haven't seen much evidence of educational growth presented here----How much better will the level of Spencer's education become?

The use of educational jargon such as best teaching practices, strong teaching strategies and more opportunities for students says nothing. It's just a lot of smoke and mirrors to impress people who are not in education. Best practices and teaching strategies all depend upon which political party is in power, who the current educational guru is, and who is the Head of the Iowa Department of Education. They change "teaching practices" as often as the wind. Just when a teacher finally gets a program into a workable format, oops, best practices are on a different tangent. Oh, and gee, curriculum needs to be written again because the Iowa department of Education wants it in another format. Using skype is a nice way to add intergrating developing technologies into the curriculum. Genius tactic! But I would guess whoever suggested it never had a room of 25 plus first graders staring at a computer monitor at another group of 25 plus fifth graders staring back. Talk about a teacher's nightmare! And aren't these schools less than a mile away from each other?

We are told that we really don't have real neighborhood schools anyway. Why not structure our school system so we do have real neighborhood schools? In a world where people hardly know who their neighbor is anyway, you want to segegrate them more? Families with several children already have difficulty scheduling their lives with different school, church and athletic activities.

As a teacher I always enjoyed watching students grow and develop through their school years. (My school is not grade alike.) I have been told by more than one student and parent that starting a new school year was scary, but at least they know one teacher that know him or her. And I have had students that have had a lousy day just stopping by to say hi or just get a bit of encouragement. For many students their school is their only stability in their lives. Every student needs that one or two teachers that can give them a reassuring smile, wink or high five even if it is from a distance.

As some above said if it ain't broke, don't fix it. You can improve schools in many more productive ways than using the grade alike structure. There's nothing wrong with change. Just changing for the sake of changing doesn't make much sense. But this is just my humble opinion. What would I know from 30 plus years in education?

-- Posted by Ibelieveinra on Tue, Nov 8, 2011, at 1:07 PM

I just have 2 questions:

1. From the superintendent "The committee talked about research and, in the end, the decision was made we're going to focus on what we feel is best for kids of Spencer," Hemann replied. "I think you can find research both in support and to negate grade-alike. You can find whatever you're going to look for. There's not a lot of data out there that's going to show it either way." . If this is the case and there is research supporting or discouraging both, why has the district taken such a pro stance on it? I don't see any answers in the "Why are we considering going away from neighborhood schools?" section above, but just facts about our demographics but no reasons why the push for this.

2. What is this going to fix? I don't see a fact list of the problems of the current system and a thought pattern explaining how this change will correct those issues. If this new approach is just that, a new grass is greener idea and they aren't sure of it is going to help the kids conclusively (I think the district has sought out the info they want even though Hemann warns of the public doing that), then the added expense, even if it is minimal, is not justifified in the current economic environment?

Now I don't realy care which way it goes, either way it goes I don't think it the district has addressed the real issues within our school district. It pains me to say this being a graduate of SHS, but this district and the current environment in the schools has deterorated to the point where it used to be the community pushed kids to THRIVE and ACHIEVE and it has now been left to the kids to JUST SURVIVE and a lot "parents" in the community take a back seat and just point fingers at others. I find it trageic that we, a town of 11,000 people have to have a charter school because we can't say "you HAVE to go to school and you WILL behave while you are there". Now I know, these kids all have a story but people forget most people have some story, but stories don't dictate who we are unless we let them and to "give" them a school teaches them that the story has dictated how they behave and learn, sounds counter-productive to me.

Grade alike sharing is not going to fix any of these issues I don't think, and the district obviously hasn't found the research to say it will either or else that would be or should be their mantra " This system will get us back to excellence and out of mediocrity!". Until they provide support for that type of claim, they are dancing around the real issues we have here like the lack of expected achievement, drugs, pregnancies, and the lack of an attitude that we as a community and parents are letting our kids down by not expecting and not demanding more from them, they can handle it. This district needs to demand more from the parents and gaurdians to take responsiliblity for what they have and haven't done to help their own kids.

But hey, what do I know, I am just a product of this same school distict that used to be great and promoted and demanded the best from the students which I don't see anymore.

-- Posted by BitOfCommonSense on Tue, Nov 8, 2011, at 1:59 PM

I moved my family back to this town for the sole purpose of the school system. I will admit that without even considering the pros and cons I can not get passed the idea that I will have kids in 4 schools. My kids have been in 3 states, 5 schools and 8 homes in their short life and are going to turn out fine. Kids are stuff.

I think the little kids should move to the High School. Let them help to teach. The world was a better place when we all were together as one.

I am no professional but I would bet that would have a better outcome that this grand idea.

Grade-Alike, Another fine example of the 1% thinking they know whats best for the other 99%.

-- Posted by ALLFORONE on Wed, Nov 9, 2011, at 7:43 AM

Great point RA.

When it's all said and done we can try all these different things but nothing is going to change the fact that until parents spend more time reading with their kids, helping them with homework, having them work on things above and beyond their homework, talking to their teachers about how their kids are doing and what they can work on with them, test scores won't get better.

Too many kids are sitting in front of the t.v. or playing video games. I know this is a generalization but I believe a lot of improving test scores starts at home.

We can go to grade alike but it won't help. We can go to year round schooling but it won't help. We can teach to tests but it won't help.

We can try all of these things but unless we (parents/teachers) challenge our kids more than they are being challenged now, things won't improve.

Ask your teacher what your kid needs to work on most and spend 30 minute a night working on it. If everyone did that test scores would improve. Having the kids in the same building or going to school all year won't do what this will.

-- Posted by financeman on Wed, Nov 9, 2011, at 11:25 AM

finance man- I totally agree with you...and that is my point. I'm sorry that some children in this district have live in ? states, ? towns and ? homes....that is an adult decision that was put on them and I bet there was "great" rationale behind those decisions. There comes a time when being fiscally responsible becomes important to ensure the continued growth for future students. Pooling resources and networking of like professionals is only one step to ensuring that Spencer School District will be able to continue to function for many years to come....rather than decline in what is offered academically and hiring less than desirable teaching staff. (for the most part this is an area that we are very blessed currently)

To a-thought-or-two.....your negative connotation on the "learning (or not)" remark should really force people to consider that some teachers should learn when to hang it up due to lack of optimism and caring (or not). And for the record I am not in the education profession, rather in healthcare....an ever changing profession-some for the good and some not-but I bet the residents in Spencer and the surrounding areas appreciate a fiscally responsible health care delivery model (that's how you keep health care (and educational) expenses fair and lower than in larger areas that surround us.

I think that people need to put this into perspective....we aren't going to be shipping the kids 40 miles, across a huge town and into a "Bronx-like" setting. We are blessed to live in a town this size...rather than bus kids between towns such as HMS.....who made the changes they did to be...FISCALLY RESPONSIBLE!!! (hmmmm)

-- Posted by AmericanDreamChasers on Wed, Nov 9, 2011, at 1:27 PM

1. This grade-alike proposal would limit choice since they'd have to move to all schools at some point.

2. Kids would have to become accustomed to a new building every couple years rather than growing familiar with the one their parents choose them to go to.

3. The kids who walk to school now mostly live close to that school. Fewer kids will walk after they move. The bus schedule makes no sense and will waste time. Now kids will have to get up and leave several minutes earlier to make up the time getting bussed to the other school takes.

4. The evidence for the "efficacy" is mostly circumstantial and biased. Saying you can present evidence either way is indicative of the lack of logic being used-only one "correct" answer can exist, since contradictions do not exist in objective reality.

5. The whole thing is arbitrary. Citizens should demand real solutions from the school administration, not fancy ways of rearranging the deck chairs.

-- Posted by jlees on Wed, Nov 9, 2011, at 10:07 PM

The issue is grade alike buildings-- not who to blame for low student scores and behavior--parents, "old" teachers, students, or administration. The great debate of student achievement has raged for years. And, if one looked at nation-wide stats, almost every state in the USA has the same issues as Spencer, Iowa.

The bottom line is how will this affect students achievement? Cutting a budget is secondary. Quite honestly, where are the savings when a school buses children hither and yon. How will this arrangement affect the school day? How will the private schools be affected?

Changing a school system without a thorough investigation would be foolhardy. I would hope that the Spencer Administration, School Board and staff have taken time to have a site visit of a school system of similar size that does use the grade alike format to see how it works, what issues they faced and had to overcome, and, if indeed, they have data indicating improved student performance over a number of years or "saved money". I would also hope that parents would be included in this site visit as well as local business people.

It strange that this concept just appears out of thin air every so many years. (Somewhat like the plague--rude and disrespectful, my apologies.) I know, my fault, I should have been reading the board minutes. Is there a written action plan, a timeline, and a proposed budget that "crunches the numbers"? Was a survey done of parents and community members? Where are those results?

Careful consideration is imperative. Although children are resilient, I can't help but think that a major change as this will be difficult to implement unless the entire community is behind it. A school budget comes from its taxpayers -- the community. Isn't "community" part of our school system's name?

Why are people resistant to change? A surprise birthday party maybe an acceptable situation. It is over in a few hours, and there are no serious repercussions. An entire change of a school system takes a bit more to comprehend. The effects will last for years. Once implemented, one can not say, "Ooops! What were we thinking?" and then change everything back. Sorry-- no magic geni here.

In a world where people are tired of being scammed, tired of seeing corruption in the institutions and leaders we once respected, and having to be suspicious of everything we hear and see, it is a small wonder there is such a loud outcry. Just another medicine show rambling through town...

It would appear voters have expressed their opinion three times in the past. Don't mock them and say they are afraid of change. Their concerns are very legitimate, and there doesn't seem to be much evidence to convince them otherwise.

-- Posted by Ibelieveinra on Thu, Nov 10, 2011, at 8:34 PM

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