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Lebanon Tweaks Course Changes

Lebanon — After receiving push back from the public, teachers and members of the Lebanon School District’s Education Committee, administrators from Lebanon High School last night introduced a scaled-back proposal of changes to course curriculum for the next school year.

Under the current course structure, students are grouped by academic ability in “levels.” The latest proposal would remove a mid-tier level from the 9th grade English curriculum as well as make social studies an elective course in that year. It represents a shift from a proposal that was introduced last week, which would have completely “unleveled” 9th grade English. In both proposals, 9th grade social studies would be an elective course.

“After hearing the comments made last week and what I’m hearing now, I think this is probably the best way,” said Lebanon High School Principal Nan Parsons last night of the more recent alternative, though she stressed that neither proposal would eliminate honors or AP courses.

Members of the education committee and Parsons spent much of the two-hour meeting last night volleying questions and answers over the proposed changes, with both sides expressing frustration at what they termed to misinformation circulating as a result of last week’s discussion.

Some board members appeared more open to the changes than others, with much of the disagreement centering over the idea of what constitutes “differentiated instruction,” an education philosophy that addresses the varying degrees of student readiness and which focuses on reaching all learners.

“I think it’s ironic to be talking about differentiating instruction when you’re taking away the most basic way of differentiating instruction,” said School Board Member and Education Committee member Carissa Means.

Parsons responded that leveling courses is a way to do that, “but I feel it’s one of the weakest ways.”

Means said that while students in lower-level courses might not be sufficiently challenged in class, she cautioned, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

“If no one was successful, great, then tear this whole thing down and let’s figure it out ... If level ones and level twos aren’t being successful, well then that’s the root of the problem, let’s fix that,” said Means.

Lukas Michener — a social studies teacher who teaches an unleveled course on government and economics — said that there is an issue of lower expectations being placed on students in level one and level two courses, but he stressed that, “This is a solution to that exact problem.”

Michener said that while “there needs to be equity” in the expectations placed on students, “it’s difficult to do that when you’ve got a segregated group of ones and twos where the expectation isn’t as high.”

“We’re not trying to lower the bar for anyone at all, but trying to set expectations a little bit higher for certain students,” he said.

Lori Hibner, a member of the School Board and the Education Committee, asked Michener to explain how he would engage students from either end of the spectrum in a group setting.

Michener used the example of a group activity he plays with his students that encourages them to think through strategies about concepts of capitalism and communism. The unleveled way of teaching, he said, allows him to bring more students into the fold as kids with different academic abilities explore those ideas together.

“You just have to step outside of the area that we get our knowledge from a book and then we take a test,” said Michener, who added that there is a set group of students who do well learning that way, and “most of them end up in AP classes.”

He described unleveling as a “paradigm shift,” and clarified that it doesn’t just entail giving extra assignments or material to more advanced learners.

“It’s not just about building quantity for the kids, it’s about changing the way they’re taking the material,” he said.

Amy Tarallo — who has been the high school’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment since July — said that she has been to several of Michener’s unleveled government and economics classes.

“I don’t know who the stronger students are in the class, I don’t know who the weaker students are, and that’s the joy of it,” she said. “Because you can see that they are challenging each other in different ways, so that’s the nice part of it.”

Parsons, who said that she has a background in “multi-age education” from her time teaching at Lebanon College, expressed a similar sentiment earlier in the meeting when she said, “the beauty of having a broader base is that there is no middle, and that you have to teach to all the children.”

“In teaching to the middle, you lose the kids who move faster, and the kids who move slower,” said Parsons. “So you have to teach all students.”

Tarallo and Parsons said that, despite information to the contrary, there was no set student-to-teacher ratio for unleveled classrooms.

“There’s a lot of variables at the high school that you need to look at,” said Parsons, though she stressed that she didn’t “need any more faculty to make this happen.”

Suzan Louzier, who was elected to the School Board earlier this month, was present at the meeting, though she does not hold a seat on the Education Committee. At one point in the meeting, Louzier interjected when Parsons said that the discussions of unleveling at the high school were being “blown out of proportion.”

Louzier honed in on 9th grade social studies, which would be an elective course under each proposal.

“When I first look at it, I go, ‘What are the most likely kids to opt out and not take social studies?’ Probably kids who struggle with it more, and are those the kids that you want to become disengaged with the whole process of learning?” Louzier said. “Those are the kids that you really want to grab and keep in, so I have real honest concerns with this whole proposal.”

School Board Vice Chairman Jeff Peavey, who sits on the Education Committee, also expressed discomfort over the proposals and what he termed to be a process that has been moving too quickly and has failed to keep teachers, the public and members of the School Board well-informed.

“I have a problem with this coming so quick and not having enough time to really discuss it,” said Peavey. “I think we can educate the public better with having the teachers on board.”

Either policy must be approved by the School Board before it can be implemented, and members of the committee arranged for Parsons to be present for a discussion of the policy at next week’s School Board meeting on Wednesday — though no action will be taken on the changes then. There will also be a public forum the following day, on Thursday, for those with questions about the proposals.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.