This site aims to inform and mobilize Beverly parents to take an active role in all issues related to the funding and operation of the city's schools. It was launched in the spring of 2008, when the city saw its first-ever override attempt fail, followed by the closure of a nearly-new elementary school. Subsequent years have seen further cuts that have led to larger class sizes across the district. While the opening of an impressive new high school and plans to replace the city's aging middle school give us reason to be optimistic, the school community must be ever vigilant in demanding appropriate school funding by city and state governments, and better community communications from the district and School Committee.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Committee Set to Vote on 5-8 Middle School Model

After discussing the proposed 5th-8th grade middle school model before about 15 audience members at last night's monthly working meeting, the School Committee seems intent on voting to approve the plan at its public meeting this Wednesday.

Discussion of the plan, which was proposed by the Strategic Planning Facilities Subcommittee last Spring, has become more urgent as Mayor Scanlon has begun to work toward a January deadline to submit a "statement of interest" to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

While Scanlon says that the statement is not the final word on what the school's structure will be, he says that the committee should aim to get "as close as possible" to what they think they want the school to be.

Two of the members of the subcommitteee, Briscoe Principal Matt Poska, and Ayers Principal Susan Charochak  answered some of the committee's questions about the academic and social benefits and/or risks of moving 5th graders to a middle school environment.

Poska explained that the plan would be to separate the 5th & 6th grades from the 7th & 8th grades in two smaller school environments within a single building. He pointed to his hometown of Swampscott as an example of another local community that uses the 5-8 model.

From the report:
With four grades, the larger middle school is more cost effective, while the smaller school aspect (lower and upper divisions) allows for academic, social, and behavioral benefits.  The upper/lower configuration allows for improved social/emotional support for adolescent students; it enables them to be in daily contact with adults who know the pre-teen/teenaged student well, take an interest in them, and provide them with both academic and emotional support.  This model provides a balance between a nurturing environment and academic rigor.
Superintendent Galinski said she believes that 5th graders have more in common with 6th graders than they do with 4th graders.

Vice President Maria Decker, who led the subcommittee that proposed it, was the most aggressive in pushing for the plan's quick approval. David Manzi also stated that he had heard enough, and was "ready to vote."

But while most other members seemed generally supportive of the plan, they were a bit more cautious. Kris Silverstein and Karen Fogarty said they wanted to be sure that all the other options had been fully considered, and that the relevant academic and social questions had been asked.

They wondered about teacher certification, loss of unstructured time (recess) for 5th graders, the loss of the Elementary Enrichment Center for 5th graders, and the general adaptability of 10 year-olds transitioning to this environment.

Paul Manzo and Mayor Scanlon discussed the added benefits of freeing up space in the elementary schools, which have become maxed out since the closing of McKeown in 2008, and suggested that it would make it easier to equalize class sizes and other perceived inequities across the district. And Committee President Annemarie Cesa reminded members that they needed to be mindful of the community's involvement in the plan.

But Decker seemed dismissive to other members of the committee or the audience who questioned any of the report's findings, asked to discuss how the structure of the elementary schools would figure in, or suggested that the community was not fully aware of the plan.

Silverstein attempted to tie together the other aspects of the overall report, which also recommended converting one of the elementary schools (most likely Hannah) to an early education center.  She was rebuffed by Decker, who stated that "only the middle school is on the table tonight."

Decker said that the plan had been discussed at PTO meetings since last winter, so it should not be a surprise to the community. Early on in the meeting, she stated that this was the "final" meeting to discuss the plan.

But most in the audience, many among the most active members of the school community, said they were surprised that the plan was this close to being voted on and becoming the official direction of the district. And several active PTO members (including two PTO presidents) have said that they had either not heard about the plan at their meetings at all, or in a very cursory manner, not as any type of accepted action plan.

While the plans for a new middle school became a major topic during the recent election, to our knowledge there was never any discussion of the school's structure. And press reports on the middle school plan have made no mention of any change from the current 6-8 model.

The report has not even been officially released by the district, and the first glimpse most members of the community had of it, was when we posted it last Friday on this website.

Despite this, Cesa says the Committee plans to vote on the plan at their meeting this Wednesday (7pm at City Hall, and televised live on BevCam). The City Council would also need to vote on the matter before the proposal is submitted to the state.

The plan will be discussed at tonight's joint City Council/School Committtee meeting at the high school at 7pm, which will be televised live on BevCam. Community members may have an opportunity to ask questions.

The report itself is well documented and the plan may indeed be the most sustainable and academically beneficial structure for the district moving forward. But some members' view that discussion of the plan among themselves, and within the limited audience of a few PTO meetings is the same as broad notice to the community is troubling.

Please take some time to read and become familiar with the report, and if you have any questions or concerns about the plan,  contact your school committee representative right away.

11/15/11 UPDATE: Annemarie Cesa has informed us that she will delay the vote in order to allow time to organize a focus group or other opportunity for the community to discuss the proposal.  She has tentatively scheduled that for December 6th with a vote planned for the following week.

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