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Norwalk middle school redesign’s block scheduling touted, eyed with concern

Norwalk Public Schools Math instructional specialist Craig Creller.
Norwalk Public Schools Math instructional specialist Craig Creller.

Updated, April 4: PDF added, “Best Practices in Middle School Design” 

NORWALK, Conn. — The middle school redesign that was planned to be phased in over three years is now planned to take place in two.

The Norwalk Federation of Teachers would like to slow that down.

Extending block scheduling from the sixth-grade pilot program this year to both seventh and eighth grades next year will create smaller learning communities where students will engage on a deeper, more personal level, Math instructional specialist Craig Creller said at the March 7 Board of Education meeting.

Extensive support and professional development will be offered to teachers, and mixing all three grade levels during lunch will mean that “all four out of four of the types of meetings a teacher might have in a typical week,” he said.

A typical student will have a full 82-minute block of English Language arts and an 82-minute block of math every day, while the blocks of Social Studies and science will alternate days, so that students get twice the instruction in ELA and math that they get now, and the same amount of Social Studies and science, he said.

The two-hour lunch blocks, which provide 90 minutes of instruction for students, allow the teachers to meet as an inter-grade “house” team, or for all the math or science teachers to meet, or for an interdisciplinary team to meet with students, he said.

A group of three teachers will teach the same 75 students all year long, he said, with the exception being the Social Studies and science teachers.

One drawback is that the Academically Talented (AT) program is still a “pull out,” as students are pulled out of ELA, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said, explaining that you have to start somewhere and the place to start is with the students who aren’t doing as well.

Addressing this issue will come in the year after next, he said.

The Encore program has been one of the most popular aspects of the middle school redesign, and the new design would mean that grade levels could mix in the Encore programs, so, for instance, the chess team would have sixth, seventh and eighth graders, he said.

“There are lots of advantages,” Adamowski said. “It simplifies things for us. It takes an old, antiquated industrial system that got very complex as a result of just building on to it continually as opposed to redesigning it, and it gives us something that is comparable to best middle school practices and something that would be followed by the best middle schools in the country. Now, that is the aspiration and there is a lot of work to do to get there, just as you saw from the same efforts that were made in grade six this year.”

BoE Vice Chairman Mike Barbis asked about the wisdom of mixing grades during the lunch period.

Chief Academic Officer Michael Conner said he had dealt with mixed grades at lunch for the entire five years that he was a principal and “never had an issue.”

“It’s how you structure the lunch waves,” he said, suggested sixth graders on one side, seventh graders in the middle and eighth graders on the other end.

“There is a lot of misinformation going around on this, as there was last year,” Adamowski said. “We are going through the same change process but we don’t anticipate any changes in class size in the number of students taught by a particular teacher or in the number of preparations that a teacher has or the number of subjects they teach. We intend to follow the contract in every respect.”

NFT First Vice President Joe Giandurco offered words of caution.

“Middle school redesign has been a unique process from the beginning,” Giandurco began. “From the documents that have been created the design committee, we can see there was a clear path to this point regardless of the input from some of the stakeholders.”

While the sixth grade block scheduling has had positive results, “at the same time there are some serious gaps and potential problems,” he said.

“Next year many more teachers across this district will be asked to teach multiple grades, multiple subjects and create or continue enrichment classes,” Giandurco said. “Where is the PD for these teachers? Where is the professional development? I have been teaching science for almost a year now with no science PD whatsoever.”

Science and Social Studies teachers will be asked to engage students more deeply while seeing them every other day, with student loads as high as 150, he said.

World language teachers at the high schools teach 130 students but some middle school teachers will have as many as 190, he said.

“Students and teachers do not benefit when subjects are devalued,” Giandurco said. “Moving science and Social Studies to every other day does just that. In addition to a district that is asking nearly for nearly $70 million to build a new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) school we are actively engaged in schedule which will shortchange in their science and Social Studies experience.”

“Let us redesign middle school once, correctly, rather than through a series of edicts and revisions. The idea of smaller communities does not always work,” Giandurco said.

“Middle school teachers have for the most part enjoyed teaching in the block,” NFT President Mary Yordon said. “…It’s exciting and energizing to think about the changes that are possible… and in some ways disheartening….We would respectfully request a more limited implementation of vertical house structures, maybe in one building, while we work out the details.”

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Comments

2 responses to “Norwalk middle school redesign’s block scheduling touted, eyed with concern”

  1. Middle School Dad

    Nancy, I read the article “Best-Practices…”that was attached. I think those who designed this redesign might want to re-read it. It specifically talks about teams of four teachers, with one teacher “specialist” assigned to each of the four main content areas and a maximum of 120 students per team. It is too bad they haven’t taken their own research to heart when planning this implementation. My kids have all liked the team structure and as a parent I’m very disappointed to hear that it is thought to be “old and antiquated”. It works, the article even says so. The current teams are already small learning communities that make the middle school experience special. It’s too bad that this is all going to change. And Encore – Really? – I’m sorry, but I don’t want my kids in encore programs, they are in school to learn their academics. It’s not the schools job to teach my kids how to play chess. That should be an optional after school program, increase the time learning academics during school not playing games.

  2. Kathleen Montgomery

    I agree with Middle School Dad. The best practices article clearly presents the whats and the whys of middle school design. Extrapolating to the next step, the hows seem to be missing. Please present how teachers will receive PD in interdisciplinary teaching, common prep time to design common assessments and a host of other musts mentioned in the article. It is essential for change to be accompanied by best practices in PD as well.

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