Schenectady County

Action plan OK’d for troubled middle schools

More consistent grading, improved curriculum and increased focus on writing are among the strategies

More consistent grading, improved curriculum and increased focus on writing are among the strategies to turn around Oneida and Mont Pleasant middle schools.

The Board of Education last week voted improvement plans for the two schools, which have been on the state’s schools in need of improvement list for many years because of their performance in English and, for Mont Pleasant, math as well.

Although the district had to submit separate plans for each school to the state, officials made a comprehensive plan for both, according to Mont Pleasant Middle School Principal Mike Bush.

“Many of the recommendations that were made were similar for both schools, so we thought, why double the work?” he said.

School officials say there will be a decrease in instruction that consists of the teacher just talking to students but more lessons that get students out of their seats and engaged in activities.

Each teacher will develop two lessons in English that line up with the new Common Core standards the state is implementing. This is a set of common expectations in what students should know by the time they graduate from high school.

In addition, there will be professional development for teachers throughout the school year. The district would like to send some Schenectady teachers to observe staff at Tech Valley High School, which Bush said does a good job of developing project-based lessons.

Also, grading standards will be uniform across the classes, according to Lori McKenna, director of state and federal programs for the district.

“The teachers feel very strongly that that’s a barrier to success at the middle school level because there are inconsistencies in expectations for students,” she said.

Oneida eighth-grade English teacher Alison Bonheim said the district has increased the amount of writing it is requiring of middle-schoolers. It has implemented a program called Writer’s Workshop, which teaches different styles of writing.

While at first students were hesitant, she said, now they seem to enjoy writing: “Sometimes, it’s hard to get the pencils away from them.”

Also, they have added more nonfiction reading to the curriculum, according to Bonheim.

In addition, teachers are working together on joint projects. For example, English and social studies classes at Oneida are scheduled so they run back to back and can be combined into one long block on a topic such as the Depression. Students can learn about its history in the social studies unit and work on writing a personal narrative about the Depression for the English component, according to Bonheim.

Meanwhile, the district plans to implement its Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports throughout all middle school buildings. This system is used elsewhere in the district to reward positive behavior and discourage bad actions.

Board members seemed supportive of the plan overall.

“What do we do if this does not work and our students are not making adequate yearly progress? That’s the question nobody wants to answer,” said board member Cheryl Nechamen.

Superintendent John Yagielski was optimistic. He said that other districts are going to have to implement the Common Core standards so Schenectady is ahead of the curve, even though it was forced to write these plans.

“Because of the process that was followed, the leadership that was shown, we’ve developed a great deal of enthusiasm necessary to move that forward,” he said.

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