At its meeting on Jan. 24, the Katonah-Lewisboro school board showed signs that the academic strategy of teaming used in the middle school might no longer be useful in the eighth grade, particularly in light of a difficult budget season looming ahead.
Following a presentation by John Jay Middle School Principal Richard Leprine on the structure and philosophy of the school curriculum, the board delved into the topic of teaming, with a few board members sharing strong views.
Teaming is an academic strategy meant to build small learning communities within grades that are led by a dedicated faculty, Mr. Leprine said. He cited a number of benefits, including increased coordination between teachers and improved communication between parents, teachers and administrators.
“Teaming is an essential piece of the middle school,” Mr. Leprine said.
Removing it from the eighth grade could come with the added benefits of increased time for coordination between teachers, a resource they are in need of as state mandates demand more of their time, particularly the common core curriculum.
“One of the needs we are finding as we implement the common core is teachers need more time to meet with their department members,” Mr. Leprine said.
Mr. Leprine did not say outright that he supported removing teaming, only that it was something worth looking at in the eighth grade, but he cautioned that making such a change in the master schedule would not be easy.
“I can tell you that it would be a pretty difficult task,” he said, “but one we would take on if it was something you [the board] felt you wanted to pursue.”
“I am not a proponent of teaming in the eighth grade, for sure,” board president Mark Lipton said.
After nearly six years on the board, and having watched his own daughter travel through the middle school, Mr. Lipton said the resources used for teaming throughout the middle school might be better spent or saved, and that he would not be opposed to dropping teaming in all grades.
In eighth grade in particular, once students begin accelerated academics, teaming naturally falls apart as students start to diverge academically, he said.
“The money we saved could be either saved or put into additional programing to advance students more than we’re doing,” he said.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Kreutzer was quick to make the administration’s position clear that removing teaming from the sixth or seventh grades was not something the administration was immediately interested in.
“I don’t think the administration is anywhere near venturing, hinting, winking at seventh or sixth grade,” he said. “It can happen for those eighth graders, but certainly we would be standing staunch in opposition.”
Assistant Superintendent for Business Michael Jumper was absent from the meeting, but he later confirmed that savings from eliminating teaming in only the eighth grade would likely amount to $225,000. Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Alice Cronin estimated that that would include a reduction in 1.8 full-time equivalent positions.
“We make a very concerted financial effort to support this program,” Dr. Kreutzer said. “If you were to remove teaming you might realize as much as a 15% premium across the board off our eighth grade education in the district that could result in a significant savings.”
Board member Charles Day agreed that by the eighth grade, teaming was ineffective, but that it was important in sixth and seventh grade.
Not just about money
Board member Janet Harckham defended teaming as a valuable tool for welcoming students into the middle school and preparing them for increased responsibilities as they progress toward the high school.
The teaming model itself is not flawed so much as maybe the district’s implementation may not be taking full advantage of the practice, she said. She emphasized that teaming is an important part of chaperoning students through the awkward developmental transition of middle school and helps foster students’ identities as they work throughout the year in familiar groups, a point Mr. Leprine also made.
“In grades six and seven you are talking about an identity,” Ms. Harckham said. “Students identify with their teams. That becomes a very key aspect of the middle school concept.”
Ms. Harckham reminded the board of the outcry it received from teachers the last time the subject of removing teaming was broached.
“I just want to remind everybody and the people at home that there was an enormous response from the teachers from the middle school opposed to getting rid of teaming,” she said. “They are very strongly in favor of it, and in my opinion, when teachers are in favor of something, give it to them. It is a great thing that they love it.”
Board member Stephanie Tobin believes in the teaming model and its benefits, but the time that would be freed by removing teaming from the eighth grade is more valuable than the loss of the “coziness or safety net factor of teaming,” she said.
In particular, she would like to see the time used to balance wide skews in the distribution of class sizes and possibly bring Latin into the middle school curriculum.
Student board member Sam Gordon said that, for sixth and seventh grades, it was comforting to see the same community of students on a regular basis, but the value of that fades as students mature.
“By the time I got to eighth grade I was acclimated and ready to move on,” he said. “Teaming was not necessary, and the fact that it leads to differences in class sizes is only going to hinder our students’ ability to learn.”
The time and money spent on teaming could be put to better use by students, he said.
Not wanting to cause a significant disruption in curriculum, board member Marjorie Schiff questioned whether now was the appropriate time to discuss cutting teaming. Citing the Feb. 28 preliminary budget release, Mr. Lipton said the discussion was necessary to keep the budget as favorable as possible.
The board will revisit the topic as the budget approaches and is seeking further information from the administration on alternative uses for the money removing eighth grade teaming might produce.