Last night I went to the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing series of coffee chats about the Ypsilanti Schools. The meeting was held at Bombadill’s and hosted by Richard Weigel. Richard came on board with the Ypsi Schools as Executive Director of Educational Services. Among other things he is responsible for curriculum and teacher training in the Ypsilanti Public Schools. About twenty people including various parents and three members of the school board (Amy Doyle, Floyd Brumfield and David Bates). Several issues were discussed over the two hour conversation. Richard seems to have a lot of good ideas, and seems to be implementing some good things. I am definitely looking forward to using the new EdLine system this year. It is being rolled out this fall for middle and high school students. All the parents will be given account information for the system, where we will be able to login and check up on attendance, homework assignments, grades etc. This will be very helpful in allowing me to check up on what my kids are supposed to be doing. That was definitely an issue last year. It is hard to be able keep up with what the kids are supposed to be doing, when the teachers have upward of 100 students to keep track of. This will hopefully allow the teachers to communicate information to the parents and students in an efficient manner.
Two big issues that came up were curriculum and grouping of students. On the subject of curriculum, they are currently reworking how it is defined and how students are evaluated against the curriculum. The plan is to have a clearer description of what the goals and expectations are for each subject at each level. By clarifying what the goals are the teachers can get help in planning different activities to target the skill and capabilities of students. In conjunction with that will be better defined ways of evaluating whether students know what they need to know at each level. The implication is that there will be more flexibility in moving students when they have demonstrated proficiency at a particular level. I think that this would be a very good thing and might help to overcome the other big issue that came up. This has to do with grouping and distribution of students.
Although Mr. Weigel denied that it was official policy, the reality in the classroom is that students are assigned to classes in such a way that there is a mix of students at different levels of capability and achievement. The idea behind this is that the higher achieving achieving students help set a good example for the struggling students and can help bring them along. In principle this may be a good idea. The problem with this is that the reality is a lot tougher. In an environment where you have a particularly wide range of students, unless the teachers are really prepared to facilitate, the students help each other, it just doesn’t work. There is also the issue of behavior. The top students are expected to provide and example for the behaviorally challenged students. When you are talking about elementary age children, this idea puts a lot of pressure on the higher achieving students. They are expected to help the other students but at the same time the teachers still end up having to focus on the behavior problems. While the teachers are doing this, the more adept students aren’t getting challenged and as a result are getting dragged down through boredom and frustration. At the same time I suspect (and this purely conjecture on my part, I have no evidence to back it up) I think it may also be frustrating to the struggling students to see other kids have a relatively effortless time with work and this can also be counter-productive. I think that students can help each other. But I also think that the kids should probably distributed with a somewhat narrower range in each individual classroom. I understand the desire and the rationale to have widest distribution in each classroom, but I don’t think the reality works. Many of the parents in attendance last night expressed basically the same concern, Richard heard us and took copious notes. Where it goes from here remains to be seen but at least we are talking and someone from the administration is listening and acknowledging the concerns.
Finally at the ending of the meeting I spoke to Richard after asked me if I knew much about podcasting since I was recording the discussion so Jules could hear it. I told him about Max’s podcast We talked a bit about my ideas for providing the teachers with training on free and open-source software tools that they can use. He was very enthusiastic and wants to move forward with that. I definitely want to do whatever I can to help the schools improve and I urge everyone in the community to contribute whatever skills they have to the cause.