What began as an update on the status of the Middle School Transformation plan at Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting became a two-hour presentation of research, data and firsthand testimonials from Superintendent Joshua Starr and Stamford’s middle school principals and teachers.
Overwhelmingly, Starr and the middle school faculty said that the schools have made progress since they began implementing a program that would eliminate the four-tiered tracking system that groups students by ability. The new system has two groups — honors and college preparatory — and teachers said they would like to see a more heterogeneous mix of students rather than the addition of a third group.
“It was a very thorough presentation, and I think any questions we had about whether or not to go heterogeneous in the classes have been answered,” board member Julia Wade said.
“I would like to assess the data, think about the presentations and continue the discussion about the transformation at another time,” John Leydon, chairman of the Teacher, Learning, and Student Achievement committee and outspoken supporter of an additional group, said.
Although Leydon did not speak to the topic at the meeting, one reason an additional group is being sought is to better tailor instruction to student’s needs. “Shouldn’t we go beyond just the data and look at the individual needs of students in terms of placing them?” board member Geoff Alswanger asked.
When pressed by board member Jackie Heftman to confirm whether or not he plans to propose a resolution to revert back or increase grouping in the middle schools, Leydon said he was not “at this time.”
Starr began the presentation with research dating back to the 1960s on tracking students in Stamford and around the country. He said that not only has tracking students not shown any signs of improving student achievement, but it creates an environment of de facto segregation with the majority of low-income, black or Latino students in the lower groups.
“Bottom line — if you’re going to get serious about addressing the achievement gap issues, tracking must be dealt with,” he said.
In addition to removing tracking, the Middle School Transformation plan included a boost in instruction time and an enriched curriculum, particularly in math and now in literacy, according to Deputy Superintendent Winifred Hamilton.
Caitlen Sheeran, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Turn of River Middle School, not only supports heterogeneous classes, but also was a student in Stamford Public Schools at a time when tracking was in place. “I saw firsthand what tracking did to my classmates,” she said. ” I can see it at our reunions. What Dr. Starr is talking about is a very real thing.”
Sheeran said her students are rising to challenges of the course materials. She recently taught a John Steinbeck novel — traditionally a high school reading — to her class using the book club model, a new program in the Middle School Transformation plan. Students that a few years ago were still reading at a third grade level were grasping the material and were noticeably proud.
“There is nothing as an educator more rewarding than to hear that,” Sheeran said.
The Transformation Plan has not been implemented in the eighth grade and, as a result, Heather Lorenz, a social studies teacher at Turn of River, says she still sees the segregation in her class. “De facto is when we put policies in place that end up segregating kids,” she said. “Kids at the bottom believe they’re just at the bottom and they don’t want to try.”
Wendy Lecker, co-president of the Stamford Parent Teacher Council, said she was very satisfied with the presentation made to the board. “That presentation made me proud to say I live in Stamford,” she said.
Board of Ed Vice President Jerry Pia said that the presentation was “excellent,” but expressed that the board will always review programs in place and that a resolution regarding grouping is always a possibility.
“We have a program in place here — a boat going in one direction,” he said. “The program is growing, changing, moving and has a life. Does that mean the boat won’t veer a little to the left or right? Absolutely not.”