Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

District Presents Report on STEM Realignment Process, With Final Curriculum to be Approved in October

The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education will not be approving the final STEM Curriculum until October — but that’s not a bad thing, according to district administration and a number of BOE members who spoke after a detailed review of the process to implement STEM realignment last night.

“I like the idea of having the teachers being able to evaluate the curriculum before the Board approves it,” said Board of Ed 2nd Vice President Madhu Pai at the BOE’s monthly meeting on August 20. “To have the assurance that they’ve seen it, had the chance to vet it.”

Even Board member Tony Mazzocchi, who voted against the realignment back in February, said he was pleased to see the reduction in class sizes and the increases in staffing that were accompanying the realignment. “Even though I voted no, I want it to succeed,” said Mazzocchi. But still he was not happy with the rate of progress: “The STEM curriculum deserves our best work. I don’t think we did our best work and that’s why it’s not in front of us tonight.”

District parent Melanie Geiger told the board during public comments, “Back in February fears were voiced about it being rushed and too much to take on. … We were assured there was no need to wait, no need to slow down. That all would be in place and teachers would be trained.” Geiger continued, “This district has a history of terrible implementation. … This time was supposed to be different. It doesn’t feel any different.”

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra clearly came into the evening having heard from community members who were anxious that the new STEM curriculum for the STEM Realignment — approved in February by the Board of Ed — was not in place. (The realignment is reducing the math program grades 6-12 and science grades 9-12 by 15 levels in the 2 departments.) But Ficarra was adamant that much work had been done and that the district and Board of Ed were on course. Ficarra pushed back hard, saying the district was well positioned to implement the STEM Realignment and that the district needed to move forward now to end “de facto segregation” in the classroom.

Noting that he had talked to a teacher who said she first met with BOE in 1988 in a “first attempt” to reduce levels at the high school, Ficarra said, “I knew if we didn’t move forward we weren’t going to be able to reduce the levels and reduce the de facto segregation at the high school.”

“Studies show segregation is not good for anyone and when children are integrated all children perform better,” said Ficarra.

Ficarra said that, because “we were developing the budget during that process,” the administration was able to budget for the realignment, procuring five new staff members: two teachers at the high school, two teachers at the middle schools. and one counselor at the high school.

“We did see a significant change in the integration of the classrooms,” said Ficarra, who added, “We wanted to make sure that we were encouraging students to level up.” In the process, according to Ficarra, the district was reducing class size, providing extra guidance counseling, adding technology, providing professional development, adding time during the day for students to meet with teachers and implementing the data warehouse where every aspect of a student’s profile internally and externally can be accessed. The district is also introducing the Renaissance system — a “normed” assessment that does not “just look internally in schools and the district but in relation to the rest of state.”

Discussing the fact that one year ago there were 143 curricula missing or incomplete in the district, Ficarra reported, “Every course now has a curriculum. We have an online repository every single teacher can access. We’re very proud of that. We have a lot more work to do. We are just at the beginning. We don’t have it perfect. but we have taken the first major step and we are going to continue to push forward. I want to put it in context. We were under tremendous pressure but we HAD to move forward.”

In her presentation, Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum Dr. Donna Rando detailed the process, showing changes that already had been implemented to guidance, scheduling, supports for STEM, and professional development.

Village Green collected screen shots of Rando’s presentation and will update the story with the actual powerpoint when it is posted by the district:

Rando detailed an exhaustive process of data collection and meetings with administrators, counselors, supervisors and tech support to improve the course selection process this past spring and summer.

She said that she also worked with the head of guidance Scott White to reduce class room size for STEM. “I’m proud to say the average class size for STEM is 16 for academic courses and 22 for honors.” Rando reported that the overall average classroom enrollment for STEM courses is 19.

Rando reported that she was able to pay for two of the new teaching positions through Title II funding.

And she reported that instead of having teachers monitor the STEM program, a counselor was appointed for that job.

After touring the high school extensively, Rando said that a “wonderful” space in the CHS library had been determined as the locale for the STEM lab where all resources would be located. MAC Scholars and Achieve tutors would be able to work with students in the space, said Rando. Teachers would be available periods 1-8 “to provide academic support.” In addition, Rando said she had “found money” for four Chromebook carts for the high school devoted to STEM.

Rando stresssed that teachers had been involved in the STEM realignment and curriculum process since March, researching and revising curriculum. Although the district is “calling it a draft,” Rando said it was “important for all the teachers to see the Curriculum before the Board approves it.” Rando said that the curriculum would be posted August 21 and that all teachers would have it in hand for September 5 as they re-entered classrooms before the start of school

Rando noted that the BOE would be approving the contract ($35,000) for  STEM teacher professional development at the meeting last night. Rando said that the training would not be a one-time large scale training session but would entail trainers working with small teams of 8-10 teachers at a time and coaching them — sending them into classrooms and then “coming back out and working with them again.”

Rando said that the middle school realignment was different in that it was  a “push-in program” in which two full-time math teachers would be providing academic support in the classroom.

She also reported, “I felt that, to take it a step further, we have to start at elementary level. Our elementary school teachers will be trained in math and focus” in the same model used for the upper grades. Rando said that this would provide “professional development from K-12 so that there can be a continuum of instruction in initiating STEM instruction.”

Board of Education member Johanna Wright commented, “I love the fact that class sizes are going down. I think it should go down in other classes as well.” Wright was also excited about the hiring teachers. On another front, Wright wanted a breakdown by race for all the new classes and then a report for next summer “of how all the kids did.”

Ficarra and Elizabeth Baker noted that, with the implementation of the data warehouse, this information should be forthcoming.

“You’ll get me lit if you bring me information,” said Wright.

Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad thanked Ficarra and Rando, saying “I never saw us say as a district that we were going to do something and see such a methodical approach.”

Lawson-Muhammad also pushed back against those who were critical of the district’s progress on STEM realignment: “I just want to say that with regard to curriculum, this perception that there is no curriculum … we are talking about consistency and pacing. There is a curriculum. We want to get it in front of teachers. As they are working through it and finding other ways to enhance and refine … I fully expect that to happen. We’re not doing something that is magically new.”

Board President Elizabeth Baker said she was impressed  and added, “I don’t think we’ve shouted out enough [that] you’ve brought in additional resources. … We’ve asked for those resources for a long time. … I appreciate the entrepreneurial approach.”

Baker asked if there was a way to provide some sort of “high-level” syllabus to parents.

Ficarra said that having that information available to parents online so that they can “view the curriculum for any subject that their children are taking” is “ultimately where we should be.” But Rando noted it was not available at present.

Board member Annemarie Maini said she wanted to “reiterate” Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad’s comments:  “Sometimes we are forgetting that it’s a realignment and a realignment to the standards. So we are not making anything up.” She noted, “The implication for our school district in particular is that we had a system that defined courses that were not aligned to the standards.”

Pai added that she was thankful for “the things you have accomplished in terms of class size and re-establishing labs.” Pai said that there were “things you were told couldn’t be done and you’ve made it happen. … things we haven’t seen in years.”

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