Strong East Ramapo 9/29/16: Report on Meeting with Superintendent Wortham on Plan for $2.4 million Grant to Chestnut Ridge

Here is the report from Andrew Mandel of Strong East Ramapo on his 9/29/16 meeting with Superintendent Wortham and others regarding the plan for spending of the $2.4 million grant to Chestnut Ridge Middle School over 5 years:

Hi everyone,

The Journal News recently reported that, because of its status as a “priority” school due to very low performance, Chestnut Ridge Middle School had received a $2.4 million grant over five years for improvement.  But how is the money going to be spent?  Community members raised concerns to me about the potential for mismanagement, so I met today with Superintendent Wortham, Principal Vergez of Chestnut Ridge Middle School, Dr. Shanahan and Merritte Mellion of the Funded Programs department, as well as Dr. Cheryl Atkinson (New York State Assistant Commissioner for Office of Innovation and School Reform), to learn more.

Here are my initial discoveries:

1. How is the money being used? The district is partnering with the International Baccalaurate (IB) Middle Years program to revamp instruction for students and professional development for teachers. IB is a renowned program that holds very high expectations for students, emphasizes critical thinking, creative problem-solving, and real-world applications of learning. It’s considered by some to be the Cadillac of curriculum. If done well, it means students can expect more engaging, thoughtful lessons that are similar to classrooms at some of the top schools around the world. Right now, in Rockland County, only the Clarkstown High Schools have IB programs.
2. How far will this money go?  A large chunk of the money is being spent on training teachers, paying teachers to develop new lessons for students, and appointing a coordinator that will monitor and coach teachers ongoing to improve their instruction.  It’s fair to expect that this is an investment that will continue to pay off after the grant expires because the lessons that teachers develop and practices that teachers use do not require nearly the same amount of money to maintain as they do to initiate on the front end. And, if it’s successful, CRMS can be a demonstration site for other schools. The plan also calls for elementary schools to also build in IB programming so that students have an on-ramp to the more rigorous standards.  Dr. Wortham and Dr. Shanahan said it is the district’s longer-term aim to provide IB programming across all grades, through the high school level.
3. What other options did the district have? The district could have elected to take a different course of action with CRMS given federal law, including firing the principal and half the staff. However, Dr. Wortham explained that the data suggests that the problem at CRMS is more systemic than a single school.  Rather than starting over with a new staff or focus solely on low-level assignments for students who are far behind, she decided instead to raise standards and expectations for students and teachers.  Meanwhile, parents of students in CRMS should have received a letter informing them of their rights to transfer schools from CRMS to a different district school, like Kakiat, if they wanted. Dr. Wortham was not sure how many families elected to do so, but thought it was a few.
4. Will students be ready for the higher standards?  Part of the reason IB is well-timed is because, for the first time, CRMS has also just qualified as a Title I school (with more than 40 percent of students from low-income families). This means that it receives additional funds to implement programs such as extended learning time and Saturday school.  Principal Vergez said she anticipates 12 Saturday school sessions this coming year, likely starting in November. She first needs to find sufficient staff to prepare for the large number of students who could use the extra help, and she intends to request for student transportation from the Title 1 budget.  This should create the opportunity for students to have more learning time, so as to meet the standards set by IB.
5. When will the changes start?  Dr. Shanahan said he was working with district staff this week to put together a specific timeline for implementing the plan, which will unfold over a number of years because it really does represent a transformation in how teaching and learning will happen at the middle school.  I will check in periodically with him and Principal Vergez to learn how things are going. The state will be evaluating progress every year and will stop payment if the grant is being mishandled. Success hinges on effective leadership from district administrators and teachers to learn the IB philosophy and methods well, and then follow through effectively in the lessons they prepare and deliver.  It will also require parents to ensure that their students take advantage of the extended learning time.
6. So, is this a good thing?  All told, this plan looks sound to me and certainly a far cry from the understandable skepticism that funds might be misused; non-public schools have nothing to do with these funds.  Indeed, I think we should be very encouraged by the aspiration to infuse the International Baccalaureate program in East Ramapo. It would be quite a welcome irony if our district became a leader in the county for such an approach.   While we’ve reasonably been focused on full-day kindergarten and elementary arts, this plan gives an important focus to those critical middle years of a child’s education. I am quick to name when the district is falling short, but this appears to be a plan to celebrate.
If you have thoughts, concerns or questions, send them my way.
Have a good evening,
Andrew

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