Nauset Regional Middle School makes changes in 6th grade teaching

Both the change and process for making it served as subject for heated parent meeting


   More than 100 NRMS parents, staff, and community members met Monday evening at the middle school auditorium in Orleans to hear and share opinions on the school's decision to end advanced level classes for 6th graders. Photos by Teresa Martin.

By Teresa Martin

Passionate parents of Nauset Regional School District elementary and middle school students made a plea to school official to undo a recently made decision to end advanced classes in the sixth grade.

During a more than two-hour long meeting on Monday evening, Dr. Richard Hoffman, Nauset School District superintendent, Dr. Maxine Minkoff, principal of Nauset Regional Middle School, and Dr. Bonnie Gifford, assistant superintendent, presented their views and attempted to respond to the questions and feedback from more than 100 parents and school staff.

Process and outcome

The group had two different areas of complaint: the process and the outcome.

Nauset Regional Middle School principal Maxine Minkoff tells concerned parents why she wants to use heterogeneous classes and differentiated teaching instead of ability leveled classes for the school's sixth graders.

Some of the parents were angry and dismayed that the school had decided to stop offering advanced level classes for the sixth grade, while others were willing to listen to the outcome but were furious that a decision that impacted their children had been made with minimal communication.

Hoffman, who began Monday night's parent meeting in front of a PowerPoint slide stating "Challenging All Students," admitted upfront that the district and the school erred in its communication - or its lack of it. He also acknowledged that there was a difference of opinion about the use of "grouping" in sixth grade.

Grouping

Grouping puts students into class levels based on academic abilities. Parents who favor the approach say it provides their students with the challenging work they need and keeps them moving forward to reach their potential.

They say that without grouping, teachers "teach to the middle" leaving children who are ready for more advanced work bored and under-stimulated.

The administration and the School Council, a group of staff and parents who advise the school, disagree and state that grouping by ability hurts all students and doesn't make any sense in the transitional sixth grade year where students from Brewster, Orleans, Eastham, and Wellfleet elementary schools, plus school choice students from many other districts, merge together for the first time in a large school.

"It's important for the students to come together as a class, and to know and support each other," said Minkoff, talking about her decision.

Better learning outcomes

Minkoff and Hoffman also cited academic research pointing to better learning outcomes from mixed ability classes. They said that teachers would be using what is called differentiated instruction - teaching differently to each student in a class - to support more challenging assignments for more academically advanced students.

They specifically pointed to Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck and her book MindSet, which argues that dedication and hard work, rather than innate brains and talent, form the base for building success.

Fear of failure

Brewster's Eddy School Principal Keith Gauley stood up and, to the applause of middle school teachers, said that he supported the middle school's decision.

Gauley said students need to learn to value different strengths and that is difficult to teach them that when groups are separated on academic ability. He also said he sees top students not willing to take risks because they are so grade focused.

What is broken?

"Teachers are already overloaded - how are you going to ensure that kids don't fall through the cracks?

In a clear division among the group, a large portion of the parent audience applauded while another portion explicitly did not applaud when several parents stood up to ask variations of the same question:  "What was broken that you needed to fix?"

"These advanced classes just went away," said one father with great emotion. "You're talking about solving a problem that doesn't exist. You're taking away a feature of our school system. We aren't happy and we want things to go back the way they were."

"Teachers are already overloaded - how are you going to ensure that kids don't fall through the cracks?" asked another mother.

Choices raised

Feelings on the topic run so strong that families have been talking about moving their incoming sixth graders to other schools - to the Lighthouse Charter school, to a private school, or to a different public school.

Under school choice, parents can ask a district for approval to send their children to that district's school. Nauset's middle school currently has approximately 50 students who opted into the school from other districts; tuition money from those districts followed these students into the middle school.

Conversely, if Nauset students decamp to a different district, tuition money follows them out of Nauset and into the other district. Thus, the response of parents to the changes has potential financial impact on the middle school.

Decision time is now

Nauset Regional School District superintendent Richard Hoffman listens and takes notes during the Q&A portion of the more than two-hour long meeting about sixth grade structural changes, while one of the school's parents watches.

One family talked about how happy they had been with the middle school for their oldest child who excelled in advanced classes -- and how concerned they were for their entering sixth grader.

After hearing the news of the policy change, they entered their child in the lottery for the Lighthouse Charter School, won a slot in the lottery, and are now trying to decide whether or not to take a chance with the middle school. The deadline to make that decision is fast approaching.

"Parents have choices," exhorted another mother whose children are in elementary school. Her comments created a wave of nods among many parents in the room.

Commitment to rigor

School staff stressed that they believe all student needs can be met with the changes and that the change impacts only the sixth grade; advanced classes remain in the seventh and eighth grades.

Only the structure is changing, said district staff. The goals remain the same. "We are committed to rigor," said Minkoff.

She listed several specific strategies she said teachers would be using to address advanced students, including "orbital studies" to help students go deeper into content, "tiered lessons" to provide multiple levels of difficulty within the same class, and "anchor activities" which provide additional work for students who complete assignment more quickly than others.

She also said the school was looking at a number of technology-based options to allow advanced students to further their work, including Kahn Academy, which the Lighthouse Charter School has been using as one of its tools for addressing its drop in performance in math scores.

"Disenfranchised"

"We are committed to rigor." - Dr. Maxine MinkoffAt least as controversial as the issue of grouping was the process that led to the evening's meeting.

"I feel disenfranchised," said one mother several times over the course of the evening.

The same mother also expressed dissatisfaction with her attempts to talk directly to the school about the issue, describing the response she received as "condescending."

No one came to the meetings

Minkoff countered that she had many before school, after school, and evening coffees - but that no one showed for them.

Parents responded that they had been happy - and so had no reason to show up and complain. They didn't know any changes were in the works. If they had, they said, they would have come to make their views known.

"When was the decision made? Were any affected parents part of it? When was the school board informed?" demanded another mother.

Mea culpa

Minkoff said the decision was made on Feb 15 and that it was not something that needed to be shared with the school board.

However, she went on to add that, "I did make a mistake in not making a very public announcement, and I apologize for that. I never intended for it be a secret."

But is it a done deal?

Although Minkoff and Hoffman spoke of the decision in past tense, by the end of the evening it was less clear that the decision was a final one.

In fact, although he supported the change, Hoffman also said specifically that the decision was not yet finalized - in part due to the poor process.

"I think everyone has made it clear that the communication didn't work," he said.

Communication mis-steps redux

However, in an example of the communication issues that so frustrated the parents leading up to the meeting, the team had no plan for follow up communication or responding to the many questions that could not be addressed within the time constraints of the evening.

One mother, who had a long list of written questions, wanted to know where she could submit them and where and when the answers would appear.

Others clamored for a date on which a final decision would be confirmed - in part so they could make their family decisions about school selection.

The lack of a planned follow through created a strong outburst of frustration and some heated emotion as the meeting broke up, with some parents remaining to question district staff as others left grumbling.

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