Budget cutting round 1: Middle School restructuring

As part of its efforts to meet the expected deficits over the next two years, the AAPS launched an initiative to restructure the middle school program and curriculum so as to find about $2 million in cost savings. They started with the middle schools because they have the highest cost of operation per student. Cutting funding from programs that do not have a lot of leeway is never a desirable thing, but it is clear that the district will be under a lot of budget pressure for some time to come.

The question is, are the current proposals the best solution under the circumstances? Are other ideas on the table? Will these budget savings, however they are achieved, be the end of the cutting, or will we need to do this over and over? The process has gotten only moderate public attention, but key decisions will be made very soon that will affect the workings of our middle schools for years to come. Please join us in discussing the current proposals and the broader question of how to cut funds without gutting our schools’ programs.

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Middle School Program - which curriculum will be offered?

What will be the long-term fall-out from the restructuring of the Middle Schools? If we see a net decline in the overall enrollment in foreign languages, or if we see less exposure to foreign languages at earlier grade levels, then we have a serious problem. One indicator of a good program is early exposure to second language learning, and a high percentage of students enrolled in such experiences. This correlates to better SAT and ACT scores, and better university admission rates.

The best possible experience is that our children be exposed to the study of languages like French, German, Hebrew, Latin, and Russian at the earliest possible ages.

- Andy Smith

I am a taxpayer, voter, teacher, parent, and alumnus (PHS ’81).

 
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Smaller class sizes?

Please also check out the related topic on the tradeoffs between smaller class sizes and other middle-school specific features:
http://www.aaparentsforschools.org/?q=node/38

 
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Middle School Restructuring

The elementary and high school staffs aren’t as aware of the issues, nor is the parent community, so might not know how to vote on the upcoming proposal to “restructure” middle school. The thing they hear is that teacher contact time in the middle school increases a full 40 minutes, but we always had less “official” contact time because we maintain 2 periods of “unassigned time,” what are often called “planning periods.” Many teachers at the other levels likely view this as inequitable, so may feel it is fair that middle school teachers may now have more contact time, and vote for the proposal without recognizing the larger effects.

The overall needs of our students are much different at the middle school level. As a middle school teacher, we have the same number of students as a high school teacher, but those students have the needs they still had as elementary school students. Losing academic teaming, an elective hour, and block schedule are all very detrimental to what we know first-hand are the ways that adolescents learn. There is much concern over class size, but I can tell you that as a teacher, I can be much more effective working with a few more faces in my classroom than I can teaching a curriculum/grade level/subject I’ve never taught before with 150 students coming in and out every single day.

I’m not sure what can be done to stop this from happening. The biggest issue is not enough state funding, and your group is fighting that battle, which I applaud and hope others will get word of and join the fight! On the district level, the word needs to get out to other parents, and the district needs to be aware of the mounting concerns of the community. One forum for this is the Middle School restructuring website:

http://www.aaps.k12.mi.us/aaps.msrestructure/share_your_comments

In closing, I know that we must sadly continue to make sacrifices in public education, and I just hope each year to do so with the least disruption to the program we offer our students. My opinions on this plan to restructure middle school come from feeling that teachers can sacrifice class size to maintain the program we know is successful for the adolescents that we teach.

 
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Some key changes

Here are some key changes made by the new MS recommendations, as taken from the presentation given to the school board in mid-February:
http://www.aaparentsforschools.org/files/MS-res-slides021407.pdf

  • “The priority for teaming is in the 6th grade…” Teaming – having the same group of kids stay together across different subject classes – is an element of the middle school structure designed to soften the transition from an elementary school structure and head off potential problems that a shift to a departmentally-organized school can cause. The MS panel evidently has made a compromise, keeping teams for 6th grade but dropping them for 7th and 8th. They say as much in the line “6th grade may look different from 7th/8th grade.”
  • “The number of elective hours reduced from 3 to 2” retaining “traditional” electives such as art, foreign language, instrumental and vocal music, computers, etc.
  • “Eliminate academic elective courses” such as “Michigan Forests,” “Animals Galore,” etc.
  • “Eliminate the 6th grade course ‘Writing in the Content Area’”
  • The “advisory/activity” period would be “redefined.”
 
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more info on MS restructuring

I’m Brit Satchwell, 6th grade teacher at Forsythe. I continue to follow this site and encourage others to participate in this discussion. As stated in my previous posting, I especially welcome the attention and comments of parents as I think they (we… my son recently graduated from Huron and now attends WCC) will be the force that eventually activates our district and nudges Lansing towards long-term funding solutions.

I also am a member of the AAEA team that recently negotiated with administration regarding the contractual changes that must be approved by the teachers and the BoE before MS restructuring can proceed. The teachers vote April 2 and 3, the BoE is scheduled to vote (pending the result of the teacher vote) on April 4.

I want to add to what Steve Norton said about “teaming”. He is correct in saying that teaming from the students’ perspective means that they will spend the majority of their day with the same classmates in academic classes (math, science, language arts and world cultures), but will split up to be with a mix of other classmates in their elective classes. Steve was also correct in pointing out teaming’s critical advantages in the middle school years. Indeed, teaming is one of the key components that differentiates a middle school from a junior high school.

However, teaming also has a different and distinct meaning from a teacher’s perspective. Teaming to a teacher also means that any academic teacher can look out on any class and automatically know who their other academic teachers are, and know that he/she has the same planning periods as those teachers (THEIR team mates) in order to compare notes and share ideas regarding individual students. In “team” meetings, teachers discuss what is and is not working for individual students, develop individual achievement plans tailored for the individual student, become as one regarding behavioral plans, and meet with parents as necessary (thus sparing the parent the task of scheduling several meetings with several teachers). This aspect of teaming is crucial to giving individualized instruction and EXPONENTIALLY increases the effectiveness of all teachers who are on a true team.

Teaming, as accurately described by Steve, has continued unabated this year in all five middle schools. However, teaming from the teachers’ perspective has already died a partial death in two of the five middle schools due to the staffing squeeze in the wake of LAST year’s budget cuts. In two buildings (including Forsythe) unavoidable staffing cuts, coupled with NCLB’s mandates regarding certification and “highly qualified” criteria, forced principals to make cross-grade assignments. Let me use Forsythe for the sake of a clear example and accuracy…

Last year I was on a team that consisted entirely of 6th grade teachers. We had common planning time. We met once each week to discuss our common students. This year, several teachers from the 7th and 8th grades each teach one 6th grade class. Furthermore, the remaining “pure” 6th grade teachers do not all share the same 6th grade students as before. So now when we meet as a “6th grade team”, the “borrowed” 7th and 8th grade teachers cannot attend because they are with their 7th and 8th grade students. The “pure” 6th grade teachers who can attend the meeting cannot easily tell who has which 6th grade students without a chart. So if we want to have a “team” meeting with a teacher who shares our students, we have to break the meeting into permutations of smaller meetings (ie, I have to wait until my “team mate” is done chatting with her/his other “team mates” so that I can have MY “team” meeting.) Needless to say, these “team meetings”, compressed into a harried 45 minutes, are not as productive as they once were. Is your head spinning yet?

I want to say that AAPS has been and continues to be excellent not just because the staff and administration are “hot stuff”. We are what we are also because of an amazingly complex schedule at each middle school that has evolved to accommodate individual student’s needs. MS restructuring will effectively eliminate true “teaming” next year in all five middle schools. Some schools, if fortunate, might be able to preserve a vestige of teaming (I can’t speak for all of them).

Don’t get me wrong… I’m not bashing MS restructuring. If you have cancer, chemotherapy is a good thing. Both the teachers AND administration have sincerely honored the work of the MS restructuring committee. We have, as a district, done amazingly well in light of the cuts over the past five years, and we’ll continue to truly do the best job possible given the immense cuts yet to come ($20.5 million over the next three years?) However, as primary stakeholders in the Ann Arbor schools, parents have a need and a right to know that even the MS restructuring committee (!!) stated that restructuring was NOT the best course of action. They were NOT assembled to improve the middle schools. Rather, their task was to come up with the least disruptive plan possible given the CUTS to take place next year. Given a choice, they would have chosen to leave things just as they stood, and they said exactly that when they reported their results.

Middle school teachers will take a big hit next year if the teachers pass MS restructuring next week. They are not happy campers. Their (my) work load will go up 15.23% without any additional compensation (this is like a person working a 40-hr week being told they will now work an extra 6 hours per week for no additional pay… I hope this helps dispel the “greedy teacher” myth that was cynically perpetuated during the Prop 5 campaign last fall). The amount of planning many will have to do will double (preparing an extra lesson for another grade level). Our planning time to accomplish that double planning will be cut 40% (planning lessons is no small thing… we don’t just show up and wing it). AND… true TEACHER teaming will be a thing of the past.

Elementary teachers have not all been sympathetic for the impending plight of middle schools… and who can blame them? They took the brunt of significantly more work and less planning time because of cuts two years ago. My guess is that it may be the high school’s turn next year (even though their class sizes have increased dramatically already).

Please don’t take this as whining. It’s the candid truth that the public should know about their public schools. I’m actually proud that I work with colleagues who would even consider restructuring in order to keep our level of excellence up as long as we can (the least disruption possible to class sizes and programs). We’re doing more than the rhetorical “everything possible” to keep our students in truly excellent schools. I’m proud of the way that AAPS and AAEA have been able to work together to minimize our joint downward spiral without flying apart. May our sympathy go out to the middle school principals who have wildly complicated staffing puzzles to solve next year and beyond. Their hard work is bound to please practically nobody.

I’m also confident that once our parents come fully into the loop that they will come to our (their own) rescue. Because until that happens, and until we convince Lansing that public education has already cut to the bone, the walls will continue to close in. It could get ugly. The question is whether we as a district will wait until it all erodes to the point of recrimination, finger pointing and blame shifting. I hope not. Please tell your fellow parents to tune in to this issue and this valuable website. We’ll get what we pay for (or not). THANKS!

 
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Background info

If you’re interested in the subject of the transition to middle school and would like to look into some of the research on the problems it poses and what can be done to alleviate them, you may want to visit this PTO page which has links to a wide variety of resources:
http://www.burnsparkpto.org/cmte/middleschool.php

 
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Text of MS restructuring recommendations

The following text of the middle school committee’s recommendations is taken from their January 2007 newsletter.
http://www.a2schools.org/aaps.msrestructure/files/012607newsletter.pdf

Why restructure our middle schools?
As we have communicated in the beginning of this process, the Ann Arbor Public Schools is faced with the ongoing task of addressing the budget deficit of approximately $11 million dollars over the next two years. In order to address the projected deficit, we are examining how we can reduce costs in all areas of the district while ensuring that we maintain outstanding programs for our students in AAPS.

We diligently assessed the middle school programs and we are pleased to report these recommendations.

The goal is to reduce the middle school costs by $2–2.3 million. We are optimistic that we can accomplish our goals and we will continue to report out our progress.

Status Report #3 – Restructuring Recommendations

Middle School Recommendations
The Middle School Restructuring team has completed their review and has brought forward the following recommendations for the middle school schedule. These recommendations have been presented to the Superintendent and staff.

  • 4 Core Academics: Language Arts, Science, Social Studies, Mathematics
  • 2 common elective periods per grade
  • Periods are likely to be 53-56 minutes each depending on other factors such as morning announcements.
  • Lengthening student lunch is a high priority but dependent on final bell schedule.
  • A student activity period will be adjacent to lunch hour at each grade level.
  • Expanded extra curricular club programs to augment loss of one elective. Programs may include art, computer, chess clubs, and other academic enrichment choices.
  • Restructured after school sports program but no elimination of offerings.
  • Provide some level of support classes for students who need academic assistance.
  • State mandated health requirement to be fulfilled through a 9 week class.

Electives
The recommended student schedule will have four core subject classes and two elective periods per day. Classes will be approximately 53-56 minutes
in length. Each school will continue to have flexibility in their elective offerings.

6th Grade – Students who select music/performing arts elective will alternate with physical education for the entire year. The other elective hour will be rotated between 6 different exploratory classes that will rotate every 6 weeks allowing students 6 different elective experiences. There will be alternative schedules for students with two music electives.

7th Grade – Students will take a 9 week required health class and then select either music, which is offered every day for the full year, foreign language for a semester or from a variety of 9 week elective courses including art, physical education, computer skills, technology, and performing arts.

8th Grade – Students are able to choose between year- long music and foreign language electives. Those who do not choose one or both of these year-long electives will have the opportunity to choose 9 week electives from a variety of choices including art, computer, technology, physical education.