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Teachers defend 8th grade teaming

The discussion about teaming in the eighth grade at John Jay Middle School took a decisive turn recently when Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Kreutzer announced that the superintendent’s budget scheduled to be released later this month will include cutting teaming in the eighth grade.

In response to the Katonah-Lewisboro school board’s discussion regarding the possible elimination of the academic strategy of teaming in the eighth grade, a handful of John Jay Middle School teachers lined up at the podium at a recent board meeting to defend teaming as a vital resource for teaching.

Sean Murphy, a teacher at John Jay Middle School, was among several teachers and faculty members to highlight the merits of teaming at the Feb. 7 school board meeting. (Reece Alvarez photo)

“Every other aspect of middle school philosophy, from interdisciplinary work to creating strong interpersonal relationships, relies on teaming,” Laura Atwell, a seventh grade social studies teacher at JJMS, said at the board meeting on Feb. 7.

In the 1970s, when Ms. Atwell attended the middle school, it was called a junior high school and it was a purgatory one passed through on the way to the high school, she said. But significant shifts in the philosophy and structure of middle schools have changed them into educational facilities that respond to the unique needs of the middle school age group, including eighth graders, she said.

“They are 13 going on 14,” she said. “Many won’t turn 14 until after moving up [to high school]. They may be academically ready for accelerated math and science, but developmentally they are middle schoolers with a need for a structure that nurtures as well as educates.”

Teaming is an academic strategy used in JJMS in grades six through eight that organizes grades into smaller-sized teams that go through the year with a dedicated faculty. A series of teachers defended teaming at the meeting as essential in creating enhanced communication and coordination among teachers, students and parents.

“To take this safety net away and this educational support away, it is just not a good time to do it,” said Jeff Tepper, a counselor at JJMS for 11 years. “I don’t know if it will ever be a good time to do it, because it is so beneficial to kids.

“I personally think from my role and dealing with teams, having teams helps kids. There is no amount of money that would justify taking away this support from our kids. It really benefits them.”

A few board members have questioned the effectiveness of teaming, particularly in the eighth grade, as students spend less time with their team and begin to branch out into accelerated courses.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Michael Jumper estimated that the savings from removing eighth grade teaming would be $225,000. Including residual savings next year, that figure is more like $300,000, Dr. Kreutzer said.

“I taught at the middle school for seven years,” said Alice Cronin, assistant superintendent for instruction. “I was administrator there for four, so I don’t enter lightly into a conversation about what is a signature practice at the middle school, which is teaming.”

Ms. Cronin presented the board with options for modifying teaming in the eighth grade to make it less costly but not remove it entirely. She also included a list of pros and cons should the program be removed. The negative consequences of removing teaming included reduced coordination of tests and assignments between the disciplines, fewer opportunities for interdisciplinary coordination, and reduced communication among teachers and with parents regarding the monitoring of issues with students.

The benefits focused largely on how the vacuum of time left by the removal of teaming could be filled. Suggestions included increased time for guidance, teacher planning time and academic strategies to monitor students’ progress and intervene when necessary.

There was even some student support for removing eighth grade teaming.

“By cutting teaming we are opening up avenues for other styles of learning, and as a student I feel like I could have potentially learned more sans teaming, taking dollars and cents completely out of the picture,” said Sam Gordon, student board member.

Faced with a $1.7-million budget deficit this year and an estimated deficit next year of close to $3 million, hard decisions will be necessary, Dr. Kreutzer said.

“I’m not happy or proud of this situation by any means,” he said.

As the fiscal reality looms ahead, the district should expect to be faced with hard decisions about good programs as the financial pressure on the district extends well beyond just teaming.

“In regards to teaming and in general regarding the entire structural program and the finances of the district, the current program we have in place is not sustainable under a tax cap environment,” Mr. Jumper said. “Under our current structures, whether they are curriculum, program or contractual structures, we cannot sustain this level of spending.”

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