Aiming At The Middle

Even the best programs can be improved over time.

Such is the case of the Warren County School District’s middle level program.

Three prestigious “Schools to Watch” awards later, district officials still see room for growth and improvement in the model, which is highlighted by longer periods in the core subject areas as well as students being placed in teams with the same content area teachers, allowing collaboration and common planning.

Gary Weber, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, presented an update on the program to the school board’s Curriculum, Instruction and Technology Committee on Monday.

He spoke in glowing terms of the model, citing emotional, social and behavioral benefits to the system. “We’ve been recognized as leaders in the middle school world,” he said. “We’re very, very proud of that.”

But some struggles have still emerged.

The crux of the reform effort appears to be two-fold. One, district writing scores have not improved as originally expected and, two, there has been concern regarding the middle level schedule, which includes 60-minute periods for the four core academic areas and, accordingly, does not align with the high school schedule.

“When we first looked at the middle level philosophy, when we started out, we basically took English and reading and started giving reading to every kid. We did see a dramatic increase in reading (scores),” said Weber.

Writing, instead of being focused in the language arts, was spread throughout all the content areas. Improvement has not been seen there.

“Not having the middle level schedule align with high school has been a problem,” he added. “Effective use of teacher time has been an issue… and coverage is difficult (when) periods don’t align.”

He specifically mentioned “specials teachers,” who are “often underutilized based on (the) schedule.”

So what does a possible new schedule look like?

Weber outlined a schedule proposal that would result in double blocks, approximately 120 minutes, in language arts and math and a reduction to the traditional 42-minute period for social studies and science.

“One of the things we did this year (was) looking at time utilization of every teacher in the district,” he said.

Under the new schedule, that would mean fewer social studies and science teachers would be needed at the middle level to cover the course load. Weber also explained that declining enrollment throughout the district is limiting the number of sections to be offered, as well.

The result could be 10 to 15 social studies and science positions that would no longer be needed under the schedule proposal.

Weber said it would “increase class size but increase efficiency in staffing.”

A chart presented to the board indicates that in most places enrollment in middle level is significantly below that of the district’s elementary class sizes.

Superintendent Dr. William Clark said the “plan is based upon reflection upon the goals… trying to look at numbers to make sure they are equitable.

“Staffing impacts your overall budget immensely,” he added. “Staffing numbers are critical. This is the first step to look at this in the middle level.”

Weber explained that the schedule proposal would “need one language arts and math per team (and) would go to one social studies and science for both teams.”

“You do have options within the schedule on how you utilize staff,” he added.

“Would this enable us to go back to teaching writing again?” Board President Arthur Stewart asked.

“Yes. It would give control of writing to language arts teachers,” said Weber.

Stewart said the presentation “generates board questions…. (It) has enormous impact on the budget.”

He classified the number of teaching positions potentially reduced in this model as a “big-ticket item.”

Clark said on Wednesday that it is not an administrative recommendation at this point. The board has scheduled a meeting next Thursday to tackle budgetary issues and Clark said they “will get down in the mud on that a little bit further.”