By Paul Maryniak
Kyrene School Superintendent Jan Vesely is rolling out a plan to revamp the district’s middle schools.
It is designed to improve students’ academic performance, make them more self-reliant and give them greater freedom to pursue studies in areas that interest them.
It also involves a significant overhaul of the district’s athletic program to increase the options and opportunities for students. It will provide more intensive intervention for students struggling academically and will make grading and academic programs more consistent among all six middle schools.
The plan was unveiled to the governing board last week after months of consultation with groups of parents, students and teachers.
Vesely and other administrators will now roll out the three-year plan to employees, students and parents and begin its implementation in the coming school year.
The rollout coincides with the release on Feb. 14 of a comprehensive districtwide audit by a consulting firm that examined “our policies, organizational relationships, administrative functions, budgeting and curriculum design,” Vesely said in a recent letter to parents.
She said that rather than trying to find additional money for the middle-school redesign, “We will focus on de-centralizing our operations at the district office and re-dedicate more resources towards schools and classrooms in support of student learning.
“The reality is that we have a fixed budget on which to operate at a time when we need to identify ways to stabilize our enrollment, remain competitive with the many choices parents have to educate their children and to ensure our students keep pace with increased academic standards,” added Vesely, who became superintendent in July.
Christie McDougall, director of the district instructional services, said the middle school overhaul will require the transfer of some teachers into new roles, such as providing additional help for students who are struggling academically.
But because the district is still mapping out the implementation of the plan, it is not known if the reallocation of human resources will involve only transfers or include some replacements of non-teaching staffers.
“The realignment affects many of our employee groups,” Vesely’s letter stated, adding that she has already explained to them “how we will make these critical staffing decisions.”
Adding “there is a place for everyone within the organization,” she also said “there will be new opportunities that will be created at school sites to support student learning.”
Part of the middle-school redesign was already unveiled last month when the board approved the introduction of the International Baccalaureate program at Kyrene Middle School and converting Kyrene Traditional Academy in Chandler into a campus that has classes from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.
Offered at more than 1,370 schools in the United States, the IB program is world-renown for its high standards and emphasis on creative and critical thinking.
IB students are responsible for their own learning, choosing topics and devising projects while teachers act more as supervisors or mentors.
The IB program is the most challenging of three new intensive “student agency” programs that will be offered to all students, depending on what middle school they attend.
All three programs share some similarities and a common purpose, McDougall said:
Help students develop their “executive skills” that help them identify what they need, and set goals and a way to achieve them. The programs also will help students develop leadership skills and their ability to work with others.
The programs also aim to help students develop a “growth mindset” in which they learn how to identify what they need in life and know how to help themselves achieve it as they get older.
Focusing on the development of a student’s “self-determination,” these programs help them to decide “how can I know what I need and help myself,” McDougall said.
“It’s teaching students to be self-aware, to reflect, to set goals and be able to say, ‘through my hard work and planning, I’ll get there, not because I am smart,’” she said.
Such critical thinking will likely be necessary for job survival when today’s middle school students 10 years from hit their 20s, McDougall said.
“It is not very likely we’ll have very many people in 10 years who will stay in one job,” she said. “They may not even stay in the same career. It will require lifetime learning for them to adapt.”
Thus, the “student agency” programs give them the skills to assess their career at any given time and make and implement plans to make changes if necessary.
The two other programs are the Leader In Me and Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID.
The new plan will dramatically impact the academic program at each middle school, making class offerings and grading more consistent across the board.
Indeed, the class offerings will be so varied that students will be selecting them from a book that describes each, similar to what college students do now.
The plan will give students more “self-directed” learning opportunities and class choices, provide advanced science and social studies classes in all middle schools and make a somewhat greater effort to ensure that as many students as possible are getting their first choice for electives.
McDougall said that a survey which drew nearly 500 responses from parents guided some of the middle school redesign.
“One of the biggest responses involved consistency across buildings and more advanced course offerings. Those are the areas we want to heavily address,” she said.
Thus, advanced social studies and science programs will be available in sixth to eighth grades at all schools, not just for gifted students.
“We wanted to make sure all our schools offered those opportunities to those children who wanted them,” McDougall said.
The advanced classes expose students to more self-directed learning activities.
While all middle schools will be taught what state standards require, the advanced courses help build on that.
Additionally, students will be able to engage inquiry. They might compete in science fairs more than a general class would.
The plan also calls for more “responsive instruction and support” for struggling students.
Each middle school will be assigned a guidance counselor—a position that currently doesn’t exist.
Unlike counselors in high school, who help students select and get into a college or university, the middle school counselors will identify students who are struggling with their subjects because of emotional or other problems, or a problem in their home.
“They are social workers that really support behavioral and emotional health needs,” McDougall said. “Social and emotional supports are needed. These are not in place in any of our schools.”
The additional academic support and intervention for struggling students is built around a simple proposition, she explained.
“We want to make sure we have systems where students are responsible and accountable for their learning, but if you haven’t learned it yet, you still have opportunities to get up to speed,” McDougall said.
While the state tests for proficiency and non-proficiency in a subject, she noted that “just because a student isn’t proficient doesn’t mean they are behind. Some children can get additional support from the teacher in classroom.”
Additional support from teachers will also be built into class schedules, she said, and there will be opportunities where groups of students will have additional study together under a teacher’s guidance so they can learn from each other.
Some students who have a particularly rough time in a particular subject may get an additional class period in their daily schedule that is devoted to helping them learn that subject.
McDougall said that some teachers will be trained to provide the additional support.
“It’s more of a reorganization, looking at reallocating resources so that existing personnel are used in different ways,” she said, adding:
“Some training will be needed. Whichever teachers are identified as intervention specialists—some might want it and others might be identified—will be trained.
She also said besides training, “We want to make sure teachers have materials for intervention.”