WEST NEWBURY -- Some parents are questioning a decision to change the teaching methodology at the Pentucket Regional Middle School next year -- and are particularly unhappy about how they heard about it in the first place.
But when reached on Friday, Middle School Principal Ken Kelley stressed his belief that the new plan will improve teacher collaboration and help to better personalize each student’s educational experience.
Kelley, who spoke by phone from Washington, D.C., where he was on the annual 8th grade trip, confirmed the decision to end the school’s color-based, team centered approach to learning -- where currently each grade level is divided into three teams of students and teachers: Green Team, Red Team or White Team. The team-based system is a common approach at many middle schools.
Unlike what some parents who were seeking information about the change were speculating on social media sites late last week, Kelley insisted that the new approach is not a return to a traditional junior high school model, which he described as being more subject centered.
Instead, in the upcoming year, the school will be implementing what Kelley called a “grade-level system.” The new approach will allow teachers more time to work cooperatively with all colleagues in the grade level at which they teach, rather than primarily interacting with teachers just within the team they have been assigned. It will also provide more opportunities for vertical collaboration, such as between the 8th grade math teachers and their counterparts at the high school level, he said.
Kelley contends the color-based team approach was too restrictive and had outlived its useful purpose. A grade-level approach will help keep class sizes small and is tied to the district’ commitment to offering multiple innovation schools -- or schools-with-a school -- as a way to make education more meaningful for students, he said.
The regional district is leading the state in innovation schools. Last year it began implementing the 7 - 12 grade Pentucket Arts Academy; Movement, Science, and Athletic Academy; and Safety and Public Service Academy. At the elementary level, Design and Engineering and International Baccalaureate programs were established.
Next year it hopes to introduce three more academies -- for Business, Finance and Entrepreneurship; Music Conservatory; and Secondary STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The School Committee has scheduled hearings on the three new schools for May 5 at 6:30 p.m. in the high school cafeteria.
Kelley says the new approach gives middle schoolers more chances to pursue their personal interests and -- in some cases -- earn early high school credits. For example, an 8th grader who is particularly adept with numbers could travel over to the high school to participate in a 9th grade math class, he noted.
But a lack of clear communication about the change from school leaders seemed to upset some parents, even more than the actual change itself. Several parents confirmed that they first learned about the new approach when their children came home from school and told them they had heard it from their teachers.
Anna Marie Beech, who currently has 3 children at the Middle School, says she feels there are teaching disparities within the different color-coded teams and believes the new structure is an improvement that will provide “a variety of additional electives as well as additional advanced classes.” Yet she is concerned that -- to date -- she hasn’t received any formal notification about it from the district.
“The only information I've received has been through my children as well as what I've seen posted online from other parents,” said Beech, “I would've liked an information night for parents or at least an e-mail detailing all of the changes.”
“I was very surprised to hear about the changes from my daughters and was even more surprised when I learned the changes had not been presented to the school committee,” said Tom Atwood, who has a 7th and 9th grader at Pentucket.
Atwood, who represented West Newbury on the regional board from 2004 to 2009, serving twice as its chairman, argued that while the superintendent has “complete purview” over academic initiatives and making sure staffing is appropriate for his educational goals, any “significant” changes to teaching models should be shared with the school committee “so they can accurately set the superintendent’s annual goals and later appropriately evaluate him based on his performance.”
Kelley said he began by notifying incoming 6th grade families; then this past week 7th graders were informed of the change when they began registering for next year’s classes. “That’s probably why you have been hearing from people,” he said.
He is working closely with both high school Principal Jon Seymour and Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen to implement the new plan and he encouraged parents to contact him with any concerns.
“I always try to be as transparent as possible,” said Kelley, “My door is always open.”