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Lebanon Forum Dives Deep Into Proposed School Changes

Lebanon — Educators, parents and School Board members alike delved into proposed curriculum changes for Lebanon High School last night in a conversation so in-depth that more than one person wondered aloud if they would receive academic credit for their attendance.

A panel of 10 teachers and administrators from schools in Vermont and New Hampshire that have curriculums that group students of varying academic abilities in one classroom spoke for more than 90 minutes during what was ostensibly a public forum in the Lebanon High School cafeteria about the merits of mixing learners with different skill-sets.

Toward the tail-end of the panel discussion, Rivendell Academy Principal Keri Gelenian remarked that those in attendance had heard an “encyclopaedic” level of detail and said Lebanon residents as being faced with a difficult decision.

Gelenian advocated, however, for what he saw as the “payoff” of mixing students together.

“Students who are struggling, who are isolated in lower classes, who start to perceive themselves in a certain way because of how they’re grouped and who they’re grouped with — they know what that means. They get the message,” he said. “They have something to gain from not being put in classes where the material and the instruction is less than what other students receive.

“The students that are academically talented have something to gain from those students as well,” he continued. “They see those students working hard. ... Ultimately, it’s for the kids and their ability to see themselves different, and to gain empathy from being in classrooms where there’s a diversity of skills and expertise.”

Lebaonon High School’s ninth-grade English classes are currently broken out into three sections based on academic ability. The new program of studies would eliminate the mid-tier English course, reducing the sections from three to two, and would also place ninth-grade English under the model of “co-teaching,” which teams up a general educator with a special education teacher to direct classroom instruction in what administrators equate to a sort of “marriage.”

The program of studies also would restructure 10th-grade English, breaking it out into three sections of world literature and composition — one for students with lower ability, one for more advanced students and one honors course. It would simultaneously offer AP classes in world history and human geography.

Ninth-grade social studies would be made an elective course in order to clear room in the schedules of students who need extra time to work on reading and writing , according to Lebanon High School Assistant Principal Gina Moylan.

“It takes a little bit of pressure off of students who really have a hard time struggling with the four academics when they come in for ninth grade,” she said.

The curriculum changes require the approval of the School Board, which could vote on the proposal as early as next month.

Kevin O’Brien, a guidance counselor at Merrimack Valley High School, said that mixing students of differing academic abilities together has played a major role in bolstering the school’s acceptance rates for those who get into four-year or two-year schools after graduating — from 65 to 95 percent.

“Our numbers have been staggering, and a lot of it is due to the way that we are teaching our classes and the way we’ve done our grouping,” he said.

David Miller, assistant principal at Kearsarge Regional High School, said that his school’s drop-out and failure rates have been decreasing, while test scores have been increasing, since the high school underwent changes similar to those being proposed in Lebanon.

“It’s a constant work in progress,” he said. “We will never rest, because we believe that we can always improve the craft of teaching.”

In the public comment portion of the meeting, Steve Peterson, who said he has had children in Lebanon schools for 21 years, described how his “Spidey Sense started tingling” when he first heard about the proposed course changes. He said he has spent time recently looking at education data to determine the net benefits of such a shift in education policy, which led him to the determination that it is “really, really hard to separate the effect of unleveling a class from the other effects going on.”

Aside from mixing skill levels, Peterson said that interdisciplinary studies, team-teaching and project-based teaching all could be factors that play into increased student performance .

“For me, kind of what I’m thinking is, OK, how broke is the system here ... ?” said Peterson. “How broken is that, and are there other things that maybe are more broken that we ought to pay attention to?”

Deb Springhorn, who teaches American studies at Lebanon High School, said that she was not yet a convert to the proposed changes, but didn’t rule out the possibility of becoming one. She echoed an observation also made by School Board member Jeff Peavey, that other districts seemed to have taken more time to implement the changes than was being taken in Lebanon.

“We have not even had a faculty-wide discussion about this, so to me, it’s very shocking, this kind of a change,” she said. “I’ve got an open mind still, and I need to know more, I need to discuss more. I need to see what the unintended consequences are. I need to tune in to what the reality is for our school culture here.”

Springhorn went on to say that her biggest concern was the proposal to make ninth-grade social studies an elective, “especially given a lot of the skill development that so many of our kids need.”

Samara Gariepy, who graduated from Lebanon High School two years ago and now attends Boston College, credited the AP and honors classes she took for preparing her for the transition to higher education.

“I would not have been prepared without the discussions that I had in my AP and honors classes,” she said. “That would be my concern with people ... that they don’t have the experience of high-level discussions in small classes.”

Lebanon High School Principal Nan Parsons used the opportunity to stress that neither AP nor honors classes were being eliminated under the proposed course changes.

Bob Fried, executive director of the Upper Valley Educators Institute, rallied behind the proposal, but also said it would require the school’s faculty and students to band together in order to work. He spoke emphatically to the point that students are not born with a “fixed level intelligence.”

“Intelligence is fluid, it can change,” he said. “We all know what happens when students get motivated, they all of the sudden get smart.”

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