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Students defend middle school programs at risk in Stonington

By Julianne Hanckel

Publication: The Day

Published February 21. 2013 4:00AM

Stonington - Students in four middle school multi-age looping programs defended their education on Wednesday, saying the programs allow them opportunities to receive advice from older students, learn responsibility and participate in discussions uncommon in other classroom environments.

Nearly 100 parents, students, teachers and administrators gathered for a forum in the Stonington High School Commons on Wednesday. The school district is weighing whether the implementation of the Common Core State Standards will force it to disband the four programs, which have challenging, project-based curriculums.

A decision has not been made on the continuation of the long-standing programs, but teachers have said they believe they can integrate the new state standards into the current curriculum.

Among the many students who spoke at the forum was Caroline Morehouse, a sixth-grader in the Crickets program at Mystic Middle School.

"Most of you are adults so you don't understand Crickets. You think about money, curriculum and facts, but I'm a kid, and I think about Crickets, and Crickets make sense," Morehouse, 12, said. "Crickets is a place outside of our comfort zone, where we go from elementary school to being with people with big thoughts. It's where I got the courage to stand in front of you today to talk about how much I love Crickets. It's my home away from home. ... Crickets for me is about preparing for every situation in life and in real life, not everyone is the same. We're different. So please, save Crickets."

The PFish and Otters are two looping programs at Mystic Middle School that combine fifth- and sixth-grade students. The MayJunes program at Mystic combines grades 5 and 6, while the Crickets program combines grades 6 and 7.

Assistant Superintendent Nikki Gullickson reviewed highlights of the Common Core State Standards, which the school district must implement next fall. A total of 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, and Connecticut school districts have been making shifts in their curriculum over the past few years to meet the necessary changes.

Common Core State Standards are internationally benchmarked standards that prepare students to succeed in a global economy. They were adopted by the State Board of Education, which has stated that the common core supports its five-year plan to close the achievement gap, which Gullickson said Connecticut is "unfortunately becoming well-known for."

In Stonington, school administrators said the "conceptual shifts" in the design of the Common Core standards are a concern for the multi-age aspect of the programs.

"We're grappling with how we implement the Common Core State Standards in the multi-age classrooms. Common Core has time restrictions on how long you can spend on each unit, and there are new science standards that require some very clear grade definitions on what those expectations are," Pawcatuck Middle School Principal Tim Smith said in a PowerPoint presentation.

Currently, students in the programs that serve 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 Common Core State Standards. When students finish their program, they've then been exposed to the required curriculum for two years.

Administrators are concerned that the multi-age aspect of the program may not provide enough individual structured curriculum education to meet the Common Core standards for each grade level.

Superintendent Van Riley said the meeting was enlightening and thanked the students for sharing their thoughts.

"I want you to know that we didn't go into this process looking to eliminate anything," he told parents at the close of the meeting. "We went into this process knowing that we have a state issue and that we have amazing programs, and looking at the challenges that we have. This isn't the looping against the non-looping program issue. … We hope that the magic can continue to grow for all of our students. That's why we're here tonight."

He said he expects the Board of Education will have more information in about a month but did not give a date on when a decision on the programs will be made.

j.hanckel@theday.com

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