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Petition seeks to raise the bar at MUHS

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Posted on September 24, 2009 |
By John Flowers



MIDDLEBURY — A group of area parents will present a petition to the UD-3 board on Oct. 6 expressing concerns about Middlebury Union High School students’ performance on certain standardized tests, while urging administrators to raise the academic bar at the school.

“With respect for the dedicated professionals who teach in our classrooms and work in the administrative offices, we are concerned that MUHS is not doing everything it can to enable each of our students to reach their potential,” reads the petition, which has been making the rounds in the Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) towns of Middlebury, Shoreham, Cornwall, Weybridge, Bridport, Ripton and Salisbury.

“There needs to be a culture of excellence mandated at the highest administrative levels,” the petition submits. “The questions need to be asked continuously: What are the valid metrics? Where is there opportunity for improvement? Are we making progress? How about our students at risk? How about our college-bound students?”

Members of the group, which include college admissions consultant and longtime educator and author Michele Hernandez of Weybridge, began gathering informally around a year ago to discuss public education in the ACSU and ways to improve it.

Hernandez, who is also a Weybridge school board member and parent of two children in ACSU schools, then began giving feedback to ACSU and MUHS officials. She said ACSU Superintendent Lee Sease ultimately recommended that the group present a petition to the UD-3 board as a way to formally get their concerns on the table for discussion.

“I think they have been very helpful,” Hernandez said of school officials.

The Oct. 6 UD-3 school board meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at Middlebury Union High School Learning Center and is open to the public.

Among the group’s specific concerns is that MUHS students are apparently not reaching their full potential when it comes to New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) standardized tests, which measure student achievement in reading, writing, math and science.

Hernandez and her colleagues pointed to fall 2008 NECAP results indicating that ACSU students test proficient or better at a higher rate in grade school than they do in high school. They also show that while MUHS 11th-graders test about on par with their peers at other Vermont high schools, a majority test below “proficient.”

Specifically, the 2008 results (the most recent ones available when the petition began to circulate) show that:

• In grade 5, 65 percent of ACSU students score “proficient” or “highly proficient” in writing, a figure that drops to 57 percent for 8th graders and 46 percent for 11th graders.

• In science, 61 percent of ACSU 4th graders are recorded as “meeting the standard,” compared to 41percent in grade 8, and to 33 percent in grade 11.

• Compared with high schoolers around the state, 46 percent of ACSU 11th-graders taking NECAP testing measured in the “proficient” or “proficient with distinction” in the writing category, compared to the 42-percent statewide average. In math, 42 percent of 11th graders placed in the proficient or proficient with distinction categories, while 58 percent were deemed “partially proficient” or “substantially below proficient.”

• In grade 11 science, 33 percent of ACSU students scored “proficient” and “proficient with distinction,” versus 25 percent in Vermont. That left 67 percent of ACSU 11th graders below proficient.

It should be noted that the Vermont Department of Education released updated standardized test scores earlier this week. Those scores for area schools indicate a similar trend.

Hernandez and her fellow petitioners said during interviews earlier this week that they want the school district to adopt curriculum changes to enhance student performance — across all levels — and make MUHS graduates better equipped and qualified for top colleges.

“It’s all about more choices for more kids, from the top to the bottom,” said Hernandez, a former teacher and current education consultant and author of several books on preparing students for post-secondary studies. She acknowledged that roughly 80 percent of MUHS graduates are going on to higher education, but said many students aren’t accepted at the colleges that are their top choices. She noted that area students are increasingly vying globally for limited space in America’s best institutions of higher leaning.

“Vermonters are not just competing with other Vermonters; they are competing internationally,” Hernandez said.

The group is specifically urging ACSU officials to:

• Encourage students “to take the most challenging classes available so that they don’t get stuck in a lower level track and students should be able to test out to a more advanced level at regular intervals.”

• Encourage “as many students as possible to take Earth Science in 8th grade to allow for increased choice of advanced science classes at the high school.”

• Bring the MUHS curriculum “up to the College Board Subject Test standards — above and beyond the NECAP — in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Math, Languages, and U.S. and World History. To that end, the group suggests the school offer more AP (Advanced Placement) classes, particularly in the sciences.”

• Computerize the scheduling process to allow greater flexibility. The current block scheduling at MUHS makes it harder for students to digest and retain knowledge, Hernandez believes.
Hernandez said the group is merely making suggestions in an effort to be helpful. Group members said the changes need not cost the district a lot more money.

“There is no reason for the teachers to be defensive,” Hernandez said. “We don’t want anyone to feel under attack. We are just saying we have to evaluate ourselves to make changes.”

Michael Kiernan, a local physician, is another member of the group and a parent of two children in ACSU schools.

“We understand there are teachers doing miraculous things in those classrooms,” Kiernan said, adding the motivation behind the petition is to “shine the light of day onto the system and see how it can be improved.”

School officials said they are happy to receive the petition and look forward to discussing it with the group on Oct. 6.

“The meetings I have had with (Hernandez) have been very productive, very frank and we are willing to listen to her,” said MUHS Principal Bill Lawson.

“I’m delighted that parents are getting involved in academic excellence in their schools,” said UD-3 board Chairman Tom Beyer. “We certainly greet them with great enthusiasm.”

Beyer said he sees the Oct. 6 meeting as “an important first step” in determining how the district can respond to the group’s suggestions.

He stressed that the district, as a routine, evaluates test scores and strives to improve education programs accordingly. He also noted that Vermont has had a history of making sure all students are treated equally, and “not just the segment that is college-bound.” But Beyer said it may be time to “re-examine some of these discussions” on how to meet the needs of both high achieving students and those who are performing at a lower level.

Beyer also emphasized that limited school finances will undoubtedly have a bearing on what UD-3 is able to do, as far as any new or expanded programming. School districts throughout the state are contending with dwindling enrollment and growing expenses.

“One of the things we have to be particularly sensitive to is that any changes we make during the next couple of years have to be revenue-neutral,” Beyer said. “It means doing more and better, perhaps, with fewer financial resources because that is the economic reality of our community right now.”

Sease, in a Sept. 22 memo to the UD-3 board, said he and other ACSU officials are revising the manner in which student achievement information is reported.

“It is our intent to develop a reporting format that provides you more useful and comprehensive information as well as the information we need to evaluate our own effectiveness,” Sease stated in the memo. “We hope to have the format and data sources determined in early 2010. As I have previously stated, if done correctly, we will create a process that should improve over time.”

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