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School district leaders promise to listen as curriculum meetings start
Palm Beach County high school teacher Jane Kirkland on Monday issued a stinging attack on the school district's controversial academic initiatives.
"There is a lot of money being thrown away that should go back in the classroom," said Kirkland, of John I. Leonard High in Greenacres.
Not only did administrators listen, they immediately promised to review Kirkland's contention that funds were being misused with classroom monitoring of the programs.
"We can be defensive but that will get us no place," said Alison Adler, the school district's chief of safety and learning environment. "We agreed today that we would listen to what you have to say."
Monday's meeting was the first in a series of 11 district-arranged meetings this week and next that Superintendent Art Johnson said serve two purposes: Clarifying state and federal requirements and local expectations; and settling "unresolved issues."
Each meeting features administrators hosting different groups of participants — parents, principals, teachers, and community representatives from all areas of the county.
Monday's 6-1/2-hour session featured leaders of Employee Building Councils, or EBCs, from schools in the north and central areas of the county. Each school has a building council that meets regularly about concerns such as curriculum, textbooks, assignment of duties and discipline.
Tuesday's meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. and is for presidents of Parent-Teacher Associations from campuses countywide. All of the gatherings are being broadcast live on Comcast Channel 97 and shown via a school district webcast.
In opening remarks, the superintendent used a Powerpoint display to present statistics and make a case that the initiatives — embedded assessments, frameworks curriculum and departmentalization of third through fifth grades — are needed because of tougher state and federal standards.
The district is not meeting the needs of all students despite its status as the top-performing urban system in Florida, Johnson said, noting that 52 percent of all ninth-grade students read below grade level.
But for nearly four months, teachers and parent protestors have complained about testing taking away too much class time, unfair demands on teachers, and forcing classrooms into "one-size-fits-all" molds.
Classroom Teachers Association President Robert Dow on Monday asked teachers to provide specific examples of what is and is not working concerning the initiatives.
"There are a lot of changes that have to be made and they should be rolled out for the new semester" next month, said Dow, who plans to compile the examples for district officials.
He added that he would be forced to play "hardball" if the district maintains the status quo. That means the union would follow through on a threat to file grievances and unfair labor practices to step up the battle against the initiatives.
Teachers are being forced to work way in excess of their contractual day of 7.5 hours to keep up with paperwork and other requirements, he said.
Chief Academic Officer Jeffrey Hernandez, who guided the reforms, tried to set the record straight about the district's requirements, the state's curriculum standards, and the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
"It is clear we did not do a good job of communicating," he told the EBC chairpersons.
In one example, he noted there's been much confusion that new lesson plans from the district must be followed by all teachers.
"The lesson plans were never intended to be mandatory," Hernandez said. "They are there for a resource."
Sophia Youngberg, a fifth-grade teacher at Citrus Cove Elementary in Boynton Beach, said she is hopeful that the meetings will make a difference.
"There's a lot of constructive feedback being given and accepted from which changes and improvements can be made," Youngberg said.
Marc Freeman can be reached at mjfreeman@SunSentinel.com or 561-243-6642.