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Parents, teachers raise concerns over new middle school schedules

Administrators: Middle schools must change in face of low AIMS test rankings

A proposed schedule change coming to White Cliffs Middle School is creating a stir at Kingman Middle School.

Several parents and teachers from KMS showed up at this week's Kingman Unified School District Governing Board meeting to voice their displeasure about the schedule change, which will begin at White Cliffs in the 2013-2014 school year and eventually move to KMS.

The change will increase the time students spend studying academics to 63 minutes each and decrease their electives to 42 minutes each. Many of the current year-long electives will become quarter-long enrichment activities, such as origami, chess and poetry.

The district hopes the schedule change will raise the middle schools' low academic performance ratings, which are currently a D based on results of Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards testing.

"You're talking about cutting a program I've spent a year growing," said Ron Bahr, technology teacher at KMS. "I'm not denying there are core problems, but when you have 98 percent participation in something like technology, you're telling the kids that the arts and electives aren't important."

Currently, students at White Cliffs have four year-long core classes - math, science, language arts and social studies - and one year-long elective class, such as band, drama or choir. They also attend a semester of physical education, a quarter of technology and a quarter composed of academic readiness, wellness and career explorations.

Anita Rossi, chairperson of the KMS Band Boosters, said band is an important component of the school day and many students want to participate in it. She said students would hate to see it removed or shortened.

"This evening, I am not here just to speak as a band booster, but also as a band parent for many years," said Rossi. "My daughter has been in this district's music programs since elementary and she is now in high school. Music education has made a positive impact in her life. It has helped her become the responsible, intelligent individual that she is today."

KUSD Superintendent Roger Jacks said he was very upset last year when the two middle schools were rated D schools. He said the district talked to consultants and got ideas from other school districts struggling with the same problems, including Vail School District near Tucson, where middle schools dramatically improved.

"We're still very much committed to the Four A's of education, but we have to solve our academic problem," said Jacks, noting the Four As are academics, arts, activities and athletics. "If we don't do something with these schools, we're going to be getting a lot of help soon from the Arizona Department of Education."

White Cliffs Principal Cliff Angle explained the schedule change, noting it is needed because of current scheduling difficulties. Angle said electives, differences in class size, inflexibility and an inability to implement teacher teaming are factors that negatively affect scheduling.

Angle said he learned from Vail that the keys to increasing White Cliffs' rating are implementing Beyond Textbooks, including Daily Math Skills in the schedule, designating time for reteaching and enrichment, and increasing time in academic subjects.

In the Beyond Textbooks program, teachers are told when they must teach a subject and how the results will be assessed, but are given the freedom to teach it their own way. Daily Math Skills is daily math remediation.

Angle said successful schools incorporate teaming, or using the same group of teachers for a group of students, and common planning time for teamed teachers. Also, they split into three lunch periods, separating sixth-graders into a separate lunch to reduce behavior issues, and introduce an intramural program.

"From a structural standpoint, it makes it very difficult to schedule when you have all these electives," said Angle. "And it makes it incredibly difficult - if not impossible - to do any teaming of teachers. Our academics are suffering, and as much of a band geek as I am, you don't get a letter grade for the school based on it."

Angle said the schools he has observed had to make the same sacrifices to get to the top rank in the state. He said the new schedule will allow students to earn their way academically into the enrichment programs, based on their scores in the core subjects.

"There are lots of other ways to get electives without taking the focus away from what the students are there for, which is academics," said Angle. "We have to start somewhere. This requires a cultural shift, but we have continued to under-perform and we will stay that way if we don't make these changes."

KMS Principal Gary Blanton tried to reassure staff and parents from the middle school that electives wouldn't be booted from the school. Blanton said his goal is increasing electives and getting his staff to share their ideas about how to accomplish it.

Board members listened intently to the comments and discussion, then asked questions and sought clarifications. Member Laurie Barthlow studied her paperwork and shook her head.

"I do not at all relish the idea of losing time to the arts, choir, drama and computers," she said. "They're all enriching and inspiring. But until the state wants to fund a longer school day, what else can we do? I almost feel like we're being held hostage when it comes to AIMS testing. I want to commend the district for being proactive about this."

Board President Jeri Brock agreed,

"I appreciate the power of art and music, but students have to master the core subjects before they can move forward," she said. "I appreciate the district looking ahead on this."

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