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Opinion: A new program of study for four high schools

Board of Education members Bruce Kimmel, Julie Corbett, Erik Anderson, and Barbara Meyer-Mitchell comprise the Board’s Curriculum and Instruction Committee.

The most complex and expensive initiative in the Board of Education’s strategic operating plan, adopted three years ago, was changing the graduation requirement at our high schools from a minimum of 20 to 26 credits – which conforms to the state’s recommendation for modern high schools. For years, too many of our high school students had multiple study halls most days simply because there were not enough course offerings. For years, too many of them were ill-prepared for the SAT and ACT exams through no fault of their own.

The high school initiative, phased in over four years, required the board to hire additional staff; this year alone there are an additional twenty teachers in our high schools, and next year will probably require five more teachers. The expanded curriculum also required reworking the high school program of study as new courses and career pathways were developed.

At its January meeting, the board’s Curriculum and Instruction Committee discussed and approved the proposed changes in the program of study. The next step will be for the full board to vote on it, probably in February. The committee members were satisfied with the new courses, which include Latin American Studies, art courses in Design, several IT courses, an additional course in Marine Science, a course in Public Health and Epidemiology, and a course in Sports, Exercise and Health Sciences.

Our main concern, however, was assuring a smooth transition from middle school to high school; making sure students, beginning in eighth grade, have multiple opportunities to speak with guidance counselors and current high school students about what to expect, and to have at least one visit to their high school. We were generally satisfied with the process in place – which includes student orientation sessions, dialogues with high school students, and family orientation nights.

(Last year, the committee discussed the need to provide additional counseling services in our high schools so students would have the support they needed to handle the heavier course loads. The funds have been allocated, but we have not yet evaluated how well the counseling system is working. That will occur at a future committee meeting.)

An interesting aspect of the updated program of study is that it covers four distinct high schools. Last year, the state required Norwalk to change the Center for Global Studies into a full-time, separate high school in order to receive magnet funding. It is still located in Brien McMahon but is now called the Center for Global Studies Magnet High School. This month, the state agreed to transform the Norwalk Early College Academy, our joint Norwalk High/Norwalk Community College/IBM P-TECH program into a separate school called P-TECH Norwalk – Pathways to Technology Early College High School.

The program of study lays out a four-year series of course options that allows incoming students, working with guidance counselors and their families, to develop specific pathways to graduation. Education has changed drastically in recent years, and the challenges facing high school students are difficult and complicated. The pathways framework should help students grasp what the next part of their academic life will look like.

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Last year, the board was not satisfied with the state test scores of our elementary and middle school Academically Talented students. Nor were we pleased with the demographics of the program, which did not reflect those of the district. We completely reworked the program, even changing the name to Gifted & Talented, and adopted a new method to identify students, called the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test. In our October column, we discussed some of the preliminary demographic data, but we indicated we were not satisfied and asked for more detailed data.

At our January meeting, we discussed the third grade data (the first cohort to be admitted  using the Naglieri assessment). We were pleased. The number of third grade students in the program increased from 101 to 153. But more importantly, there were large increases in Asian, African American, Hispanic and White students. We are clearly moving in the right direction.

The committee generally meets on the third Tuesday of the month in City Hall. The agendas are posted on the NPS website a few days in advance. Of course, the public is welcome.

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