Stonington school program at risk

Stonington - School officials will hold a public forum Wednesday night about the impact of new state curriculum standards on the four middle school multi-age looping programs and whether the programs will need to be disbanded.

There are two programs at Pawcatuck Middle School called PFish and Otters that combine fifth- and sixth-grade students. The MayJunes program at Mystic Middle School combines grades 5 and 6 while the Crickets program combines grades 6 and 7 in a challenging project-based curriculum. The approximately 180 students stay in the programs for two years and when they finish they have been exposed to the required curriculum for both years.

A large group of parents and students are expected to attend the 6 p.m. forum in the Stonington High School commons and oppose any attempt to eliminate the programs.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Nikki Gullickson stressed that no determination has been made about the fate of the programs and no decision will be made Wednesday. She said school officials are collecting information from teachers, administrators and parents and will make a decision next month.

"We'll look at it as group and make the decision that is best for our kids," she said.

The school system must implement Common Core Standards this fall. Along with the new standards comes annual testing of students to determine if they are meeting the standards for their grade. In the looping program, the students might get some sixth-grade material and some seventh-grade material each year.

The concern is that the students will not have had all the grade appropriate curriculum required for the testing which builds on material from the previous year.

"The question with looping is can we effectively and efficiently give kids what they need to be successful," Gullickson said.

Currently, students in the two grades receive separate grade appropriate instruction in math. That would have to be expanded to language arts this fall and then science under the new standards.

Natalee Denard, who has been a teacher in the Crickets program since she helped create it 13 years ago, said she is confident that she and fellow Crickets teacher Aimee Scott can integrate the new standards into their program.

Denard said she and Scott had a great discussion on Friday as they took one of the new standards and were able to integrate it into their program in 30 minutes.

'"It's more work but it challenges us to be better teachers and find even more creative ways to do things," Scott said. "It's an opportunity for us to grow."

Denard said one of the benefits of multi-grade programs is that the younger students see what their next step is because of being exposed to the work of the older students.

"And they start moving towards it," she said.

The two teachers said they are concerned about the future of their program. Denard said that all the parents who attended last week's parent-teacher conferences wanted to talk about the possibility it would end.

Denard pointed out that statistics she has compiled shows that Crickets students score an average of 5 to 15 percent higher on Connecticut Mastery Tests than their peers. She said they also develop skills in areas such as time management, working in teams and tackling projects.

"It allows kids to see what they are capable of, that there's no limits on them," she said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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