On Monday evening, parents of students who were in the Accelerated Learning Activities Program (ALAP) in Warwick elementary schools came together to discuss alternatives for their children now that ALAP has been cancelled.
All School Committee members and school administrators were invited to the meeting, organized by ALAP PTA President Sarah Lockhart and her fellow board members, however only Superintendent Richard D’Agostino and Committee member Eugene Nadeau joined almost 25 parents for the meeting. Two former ALAP teachers were also there.
Lockhart addressed the group, saying the goal of the meeting was to come up with ideas in a positive way to support their children.
“I do want it to be positive because there’s only so many things you can change from the past, but we can certainly have a voice for the future,” said Lockhart.
D’Agostino said he is willing to listen to any and all ideas but also wanted to hear the parents’ opinions on differentiated learning, a concept he introduced at last week’s School Committee meeting, and the after-school Creative Enrichment Program proposed by Committee member Karen Bachus at the same meeting.
Parents were quick to express their disagreement with the after-school program because many students are not able to participate in after-school programs due to working parents and because the program would be open to all students. Parents are looking for a program that will address the needs of their gifted and talented students as ALAP did, which many did not believe would be possible if the program was open to students of all levels.
Many parents also scoffed at Bachus’ proposal, saying it was simply her attempt to “save face” after abstaining from the vote that could have reinstated ALAP last month.
D’Agostino seemed to take that into account, admitting he would not pursue ideas that are not supported.
“I don’t want to pursue a recommendation that you get 90 percent of the people that are not comfortable with it, won’t bring their kids there and it would not be a feasible type of thing,” said D’Agostino.
The discussion of differentiated learning lead to more ideas. D’Agostino explained that the idea would be to group classrooms in elementary schools so there is an even, or close to even, number of students at the various learning levels.
“Then the teacher teaches to all three levels at different times,” explained D’Agostino.
While the parents appeared to agree with differentiated learning in theory, they questioned its ability to prove successful.
“I think there is a great value to differentiated instruction and that it works,” said Tracey Wyzor, who teaches science content at Roger Williams University. “It’s hard to accomplish in a class of 28 students.”
Lockhart and other parents questioned just how much attention could be given to their high-achieving students if the teacher also needs to spend a great deal of time with the other two learning levels.
“It’s human nature to teach to the ones who have trouble with things, and absolutely they should get more help. But it’s also that you’re just excluding all of these children that have so much potential,” said Lockhart.
D’Agostino said the vision would be that high-achieving students would be able to complete enrichment projects or use programs on the computer after they finish their work and teachers are working with other students. He says being told that high-achieving students are teaching their fellow students or simply reading another book is a problem.
“When you start telling me that your students are not allowed to go on the computer [after they finish their work], we need to look at things like that,” said D’Agostino. “Those are things that need to be addressed and explored in the classroom.”
The parents seemed open to the idea of allowing their children to partake in additional enrichment assignments, however they pointed out that ALAP provided much more than just “extra work.” ALAP allowed their children to interact with other students that are like them, taught them different ways of critical thinking, and gave parents guidelines on how to help their children.
“A new program, hopefully, would not only get them together socially so they feed off each other, not only challenge them intellectually, but also give us a way to continue to challenge them when they’re home doing their extra projects,” said Wyzor.
D’Agostino said that he believes differentiated education could lead to more accountability on the part of the teacher because they would have to show their high performing students also learned more through the new student growth model, but he also brought up the potential of using the new Response To Intervention (RTI) model to benefit the former ALAP students.
The RTI model, which is coming to Warwick schools, is designed to allow for intervention blocks during which teachers can meet and work with those students that are struggling.
“Why could not, say, the gifted and talented kids at that school then meet?” said D’Agostino. “Take that block of time and use it for other purposes in the building.”
D’Agostino threw out the idea of training one teacher per school in professional development for gifted and talented students and using the RTI intervention time to provide for these students.
Jeff Lockhart, Sarah’s husband and a special education teacher in Warwick, seemed to think that idea could work.
“That would be great if we could assign one teacher to work with students who are accelerated learners and one teacher working with on-level learners, and then another teacher or other teacher assistants to work with the struggling students,” he said.
Jeff also pointed out, however, that resources and money restraints would have to be considered.
During the meeting, D’Agostino said the only cost would be professional development, something that will be in the budget when the surplus is finalized because it is required by teacher contracts. Although professional development is voluntary, D’Agostino said it could be made a requirement if necessary for the gifted and talented education.
“I think it would even be a little bit better than just an isolated gifted program that they are pulled out and that’s not aligned with the classroom,” said D’Agostino of combining differentiated learning in the classroom with the use of intervention blocks to provide addition instruction for the students.
There was also talk of providing gifted students with Individualized Learning Plans (ILPs), the gifted student equivalent of IEPs for students with special needs.
“The teacher and the parents sit down together and they go over goals and objectives for that year with that student and the student will receive the instruction, the support and the materials in that classroom,” said D’Agostino, adding to his message that teachers need to be aware of the various learning levels in their classroom and which students need which kind of help.
While parents seemed to be in support of this idea, they still wondered what could be done for their students by the start of school on Wednesday.
Nadeau said he hopes the ALAP program will be reinstated for the coming school year until the administration is able to come up with a viable replacement. He plans to put the topic up for discussion and to a vote at a yet-to-be scheduled special School Committee meeting before the start of school.
He added that the 2-to-2 vote that failed to reinstate the program was “heartbreaking,” and although he thought D’Agostino presented great ideas, they are not formulated and something needs to be in place for this year.
“Those students who excel in the classroom need to be encouraged,” said Nadeau.
The gathered parents also had some tough questions for the superintendent regarding when the discussion to eliminate ALAP was even had, the true cost of the program and if the administration would even support ALAP returning this year.
“I was totally surprised when I heard there was a vote to reinstate ALAP when I hadn’t even heard ALAP was going to be cancelled,” said Cyndi Smith, a former ALAP parent who attended the meeting in support of the program.
D’Agostino explained that the elimination stemmed from the elimination of teacher positions, something discussed in closed session.
When questioned about the savings of $325,000 by eliminating ALAP, D’Agostino simply said yes that was the cost and yes that was the savings.
“Had we got the money, had the school closed, I don’t think this would have come up,” said D’Agostino.
When asked if the administration would support the return of ALAP for this year, D’Agostino said other options were being explored to help all students.
“What we’re saying is we can do better in another direction,” said D’Agostino.
When parents asked what to do for this year with no ALAP to help their students, D’Agostino said parents need to make their students’ teachers accountable for their children’s education.
“Where does it say on their certificates that they will only teach one kind of kid?” asked D’Agostino. “It says that they will teach all children.”
He continued to tell parents to meet with teachers, principals and administrators to make sure their child is learning.
Moving forward, the parents planned to write letters to their school committee members to encourage them to reinstate ALAP for this year. There was also talk of writing to Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist to encourage legislation or state backing for gifted and talented education, as there is for students on the lower side of the spectrum.
Pam Dillon, another ALAP parent, said she contacted Gist for advice, and Gist suggested speaking to the school department or charter schools.
“As long as we don’t have backing from the state,” said Dillon, “we’re never going to get backing from the school department because they don’t need to help us.”
There was a lot of hope looking toward an emergency School Committee meeting, which may or may not be in executive session if the only meeting items are personnel matters. D’Agostino and Nadeau seemed unsure if the meeting would be open to the public, but Nadeau believed it should be.
“We don’t have the money to do it,” said D’Agostino. “When you’re given lemons, make lemonade. I’m trying to make lemonade.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, the special School Committee meeting was listed on the school department’s website but no date or time was set.