washingtonpost.com
Why Does the Mountain Have to Come to the Middle School?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

I am a former Montgomery County public schools employee, a parent of two in the system and a lifelong educator. An accelerated math program is presenting a unique challenge for the whole system.

As a parent, I addressed the issue first with the principal, then at a PTA meeting and then to the director of school performance when I thought that no satisfactory resolution was being looked into. There is still no resolution, and I do not believe the problem is unique to my small school.

Approximately 25 children in my son's fourth grade have been accelerated two grade levels in math instruction. They took what's called Math A (usually for sixth-graders) this year. They are slated to take Math B (usually for seventh-graders) next year, when they are in fifth grade.

In the past couple of years, the few students who qualified for this level of acceleration were bused to a middle school, then returned to the elementary school for the remainder of their day. This year, so many students have been found eligible that parents have requested that instead of sending them to the middle school, a Math B teacher be brought to the elementary school to teach them. This would reduce disruption and be better for their development.

Parents asked the principal what options were available to them should they choose not to have their children bused to the middle school. The principal said their children could repeat the class they have just passed. That is clear violation of policy. When parents complained to central office officials, they were brushed off and told this option was only for parents who thought their children were not ready for a new level of math. No other option is being offered.

Additionally, the Math B class at the middle school is scheduled to begin an hour before the elementary school day. The children would then return to their home elementary school for a study hall, to be supervised by para-educators who would not be trained to support the children's math instruction but just supervise them for an hour.

The issue was brought to the community superintendent's office, but still no resolution. In fact, they have contradicted themselves and insulted me in the process. I have followed all appropriate procedures but have not received correspondence from the community superintendent herself, only from the director of school performance. I have requested investigation into the fact that forcing accelerated students to repeat a class would violate policy. I was told my perception was not reality. Could you please check this out?

Charlene Ward

Montgomery County

That sounds pretty frustrating to me. I asked the school system's director of public information, Steve Simon, to help me out. It looks as though the people in charge have finally gotten your message and will make sure there is a Math B teacher at the elementary school. I could probably investigate how such a teeth-grinding outbreak of miscommunication occurred, but the effort to parse all the inexact language would give me a headache. So, instead, I am going to quote Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Erick Lang, who has done a fine job figuring this out for you and me:

"We believe Ms. Ward has a legitimate concern; however, there has been a misunderstanding in terms of the mathematics instructional plans for next year. There are situations, in individual schools, where [Montgomery County public schools do] not have enough staff to offer the advanced level math courses for small numbers of students. In these cases, the elementary students ride the neighborhood middle school bus in order to take their math class during first period at the local middle school. It is not that we want to prevent students from taking a course at their elementary school; it is that the system cannot afford to have one teacher providing instruction to small numbers of students. If we were to try to offer an advanced math course in elementary school with small numbers of students, without additional teaching staff, we could have an advanced class with five or 10 students and another math class with more than 30 students. In these cases, we believe it is fiscally prudent, and in the best interest of students, to have them take the advanced course at the local middle school. This practice has successfully worked for students throughout the county for more than 20 years.

"MCPS is working to ensure the 25 students at Ms. Ward's school who are completing Math A (sixth grade) this year will receive Math B (seventh grade) next year. With such large student numbers, we believe we can offer the instruction at the local elementary school. The elementary school staff is in the process of identifying a teacher. School-based and central services staff met with Ms. Ward earlier this week to hear her concerns and to reassure her that we are on the same page in our desire to meet the needs of students and parents. To allay any concerns among parents, the principal of the school is preparing a letter to reaffirm our commitment to provide Math 7 instruction at the elementary school next year."

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail extracredit@washpost.com.

With this column, Extra Credit begins its summer vacation.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company