For Christmas, the school board’s gift to Verona Area School District administrators is time.
That’s how district curriculum and instruction director Ann Franke put it after a school board members promised to extend an implied deadline to align the three middle schools next year.
Their initial proposed class schedule, introduced Friday, Dec. 6, at a Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment committee meeting, had raised concerns among both teachers and parents, including reduced time for music education and increased teacher workload.
The plan to align the schedules for Badger Ridge and Savanna Oaks middle schools and Core Knowledge Charter School’s grades 6-8 is one result of a middle school study requested by the school board in 2015 as part of an effort to create more equity in student experiences leading to high school.
While the school board doesn’t approve scheduling, it does look over schedule proposals to ensure they align with the district’s goals.
The proposal would have both equalized and increased the number of minutes in a day given to four core knowledge areas: English, math, social studies and science. The lunch period would also have been a few minutes longer, with the trade-off of reducing the number of music, language and other elective classes – also referred to as “encore” classes – from three to two each day.
Verona schools have been largely self-governed for the past couple of decades, and administrators said the resulting different middle school experiences showed disparities between students once they reached ninth grade at Verona Area High School.
Other parts of the middle school alignment process have included offering the same classes at both BRMS and SOMS, as well as using the same grading scale and rubrics for assessing student achievement.
At the beginning of the process, School Scheduling Associates consultant Michael Rettig had told district administrators some things would need to be reduced to make room for what they wanted to include in the school day – and that not everyone was going to be happy.
But as the CIA meeting continued Dec. 6, it became clear that it wasn’t just teachers and parents who were unsatisfied.
All three middle school site administrators admitted to board members during the meeting they didn’t feel it was the right fit for their staff or students. Each agreed they wouldn’t recommend this schedule if they didn’t think it was necessary.
Board members urged administrators to take more time on the process and concluded that rather than sending out the schedule to staff after the meeting, an update on the process would be given at the next CIA meeting, on Dec. 19.
Parent, staff concerns
Concerns about the proposed schedule brought around three dozen impassioned teachers and parents to the CIA committee meeting. Speakers argued that cutting the number of minutes in music classes would have a detrimental effect on student attendance and ability to learn.
One parent in attendance, Carolina Mora, said despite her son being a straight-A student, he would give up anything else in his schedule to allow time for music.
Going to orchestra is an “outlet” for her children during the school day, Mora added, noting that the relationships her students have developed with their music teachers are invaluable to them.
“You’re going to take away from the kids,” she said.
Some speakers also noted that changing the schedule to include every-other-day classes throughout the semester, rather than switching them quarterly, would require teachers of encore classes to make connections with and grade twice as many students.
During the public comment period, the husband of one teacher, Jack Grotsky stood up, tears in his eyes, to tell school board members and district administrators how hard his wife works.
His wife Sarah, an art teacher at BRMS, regularly stays after school for hours.
“Think of what it takes to teach 300-plus students at a time, versus half of that right now,” he said. “How much more does she give up to keep up with that many more students? That’s time for me and my family, my kids, that you’re taking away.”
Many speakers complained about the process for creating the schedule, saying it lacked staff perspective.
Franke told the group that while the committee has no classroom teachers, it got feedback from educators who “work very closely” with the classroom teachers on a daily basis.
“Every meeting we’ve had, they’ve brought up the teacher perspective,” she said.
Urgency to proceed
The timing of the middle school alignment comes with other shifts in the district. The new Verona Area High School will open in fall 2020, and attendance boundaries are changing at the elementary and middle school levels as BRMS moves down the road to the current high school building.
Administrators said during the CIA meeting that they felt pressure to get the middle schools completely aligned by the start of the 2020-2021 school year. In March, a proposed schedule for the alignment indicated the schools would be aligned by next fall.
“We’re to a point now, just to be clear, that we have to move forward with this schedule, or it’s not going to happen for next year,” Franke said. “Our understanding going into this process was ‘same.’ That’s how we approached this.”
Board member Carolyn Jahnke asked the middle school administrators why they chose to move forward with this plan, rather than adopting the plan that SOMS uses, which still allows for three encore periods a day.
“The charge to us was, ‘They must be the same,’ and we both had to compromise to get one thing that could be the same,” SOMS principal Sandy Eskrich responded. “But if the charge to us is, ‘Bring them together so they have shared values, more time in core, don’t mess with encore,’ then that’s some flexibility where you’re going to see a little variability within a school in order to meet the needs of the kids, while staying true to those values.”