SOMA Community Questions School District’s Proposed ‘Paradigm Shift’

by The Village Green
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The South Orange-Maplewood School District held two forums this week to explain its Strategic Plan to the community and present how it plans to implement the sweeping, 3-5 year agenda it is crafting to bring the district’s educational approach into the information age.

“We’re not only thinking outside the box, but throwing away the box,” said Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Susan Grierson at the Wednesday night forum. Grierson called the plan a “paradigm shift” for the district.

While there were positive comments about the overall goal to reach more students, many community members expressed reservations about the scope, details and timeframe. The Board of Education will vote on whether to accept the Strategic Direction document and approve the continuation of the planning process at a special meeting on Tuesday, February 16. See the agenda here. 

Watch Tuesday’s forum here.

Read more about the Strategic Direction and the BOE’s comments on it in this Village Green article.

The plan resulted from synthesizing information collected from the Education Summit, a CHS student forum, the Math KIVA, the new Access & Equity Policy and the revised Academic Placement policy, said Ramos, as well as “national and state-based documents on transforming education.”

The strategic plan is a 12-step process, explained Ramos. (See the steps, the Strategic Direction Document and information on Learner-Centered Education attached as PDF documents at the end of the article.)

Check the district’s website for more information on the plan and process.

The plan’s goal is to “create a new system which prepares students for a future that we have yet to imagine,” said Superintendent Dr. John Ramos, as well as to make students’ needs, desires and learning styles central to everything the district does.

The new mission is:

“…to empower and inspire each student to explore and imagine, to pursue personal passions, and to collectively create a better future by creating a learner-centered environment through multiple pathways; remained structures, systems and supports; innovative teaching; partnering with families; and maximizing community expertise and resources.” 

“The whole purpose of this…is not to get a grade, not to go to college, but to collectively create a better future,” said committee member Audrey Rowe.

Many audience members were confused by the term “learner-centered environment,” with some asking if the role of teaching would be diminished and content would take a lesser role — a perception committee members labored to dispel.

A learner-centered approach gives teachers and schools the flexibility to design personalized and individualized educational experiences to advance student learning, and to provide opportunities (though student portfolios of work) to demonstrate their success, according to a handout (below). It shifts away from a teacher-centered approach and has students and teachers learn from one another.

Learn more about learner-centered education here.

The Strategic Direction committee members acknowledged the discomfort the phrase seemed to have engendered.

“The committee was surprised by the reaction,” said CHS math teacher Dr. Scott Stornetta, who added that the committee was also surprised that the phrase had become a “hot-button issue.” Stornetta said learning-centered did not mean “student-led,” and that direct instruction was still crucial.

“Teachers need to lead,” said Stornetta. He gave examples of how in his classroom, students are supported and given the tools to be able to work at their own pace so that whether they are struggling or outpacing the curriculum, they are allowed to excel.

“It’s all about ability levels,” he said, adding that under this new method, “vastly more learning will take place” and teachers “will have to become far more efficient leaders.” Stornetta said the goal was to “sufficiently prepare students for the real challenges they will have to face” in the world.

Some speakers said the plan was being rushed through without proper input from the community. “I would have preferred [Ramos] to spend a year or so to get to know us before going on another experimentation,” said one man.

“We’re not throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” said Grierson, noting that state standards and testing requirements still needed to be followed. She said many SOMSD classrooms already are “learning-centered” and that those students are often more academically engaged.

“Nothing is going to change tomorrow,” she said.

CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron echoed some of those statements, and added that there is a real disconnect between schools and “real life” — something that the district can no longer afford to ignore.

“The process appears…rigged and marching toward predetermined goals,” said one man. SOMSD should be “a smart follower of proven successes, rather than leading an experimental progression with my children.”

Another said, “We just went through IB. We did it, it was cast aside…the community is sort of exhausted by these sorts of ideas.”

One woman asked if the district had considered trying a pilot or opt-in program first, so that data could be obtained and analyzed before the program is implemented district-wide. Another asked how this would affect the achievement gap.

“What convinced you this transformation was the way to go?” asked one person. “There must be a plan…we can’t really be doing this as we go along.”

Ramos seemed caught off-guard by the vehemence of some of the comments, and struck an almost plaintive note when he said: “I’m not trying to sell anyone anything….this plan has grown organically.” He added, “This is about John Ramos trying to help.”

Similar concerns were voiced at the Tuesday afternoon session, which drew around 50 people. Speakers asked about how the plan would impact struggling learners, special education students, and those with trouble mastering basic content.

Several commenters asked whether teachers would be prepared to adapt to the new paradigm. One woman on Tuesday said, “I worry about teachers’ ability to do this on a customizable scale. It’s almost undoable” in a public school, she said.

“We do have a challenge, you are correct,” said Grierson. However, Aaron pointed out the plan “gives teachers the opportunity to say: ‘Why isn’t this working for you?'”

At both sessions, Ramos mentioned the looming budget deficit the district faces — $3 million this year, projected to rise to $20 million by 2020 — and said that implementing these changes might attract big funders to the district.

The next step is to form Action Plan committees consisting of community members as well as members of the current Strategic Direction plan. Members of the public were invited to apply for a committee.

The public can still comment on the plan via the Let’s Talk application, and can speak at the February 16 BOE meeting.

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