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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 8, 2012

Facing the ax
Gifted students, their families and teacher call to keep enrichment programs

GUILDERLAND — Several families and the middle school’s long-time enrichment teacher told the school board that eliminating the elementary and middle school enrichment teachers would be a mistake.

The superintendent’s $89 million budget proposal saves $140,000 by cutting the two jobs. Altogether, the spending plan cuts 30 jobs to help close a $2.6 million gap.

In presenting the budget on March 1, Superintendent Marie Wiles said that classroom teachers will handle enrichment by differentiating curriculum, tailoring it to fit individual student needs. She also said the high school model will be followed where students are enriched through clubs and other programs.

Last year, when cuts were discussed for enrichment programs, protests led the board to keep one enrichment teacher at the middle school and one at the elementary level, shared among five schools. The current proposal would eliminate the programs altogether.

Deborah Escobar, who has taught the enrichment program at Farnsworth Middle School for 21 years, presented the board on Tuesday with a packet of information. Each year, Escobar teaches 350 students, about a third of the school’s students, she said.

She also said she went to universities around the country to be trained to teach college-level courses in debate, law, and philosophy, which teach students advanced skills in reasoning, logic, and critical thinking.

Escobar gave the example of a History Day course she teaches in which students learn research methods, locate and understand primary sources, write theses, and prepare for three levels of competition; this took over 180 hours of her time last year.

Teachers would not have time to take this on, Escobar said, noting the proposed new schedule for Farnsworth requires teachers to take on an additional core class and 20 percent more students.

Escobar also cited research showing that teachers did little differentiation for gifted students in the classroom, even when they believed wholeheartedly in the need to do so.

One of Escobar’s duties is preparing capable students to take the SAT (originally Scholastic Aptitude Test) college entrance exam in middle school. In 1993, when she started doing this, 21 percent of the students she worked with scored at 900 or above. Last year, 71 percent did so.

“Do we, as a district, want to disappear into the realm of mediocrity that has become the public school system, or do we want to inspire students to excel so they may one day find the next cancer-curing microorganism, get appointed to the Supreme Court, or be elected to high public office?” Escobar asked the board.

She concluded, “It is true that New York State does not mandate gifted education. It is also true that some mandates must come from our own conscience.”

“Dumbing down?”

Walt Jones told the board he was “shocked and saddened” to see the enrichment teachers cut.

“Living in a community requires accommodation for all students,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to meet the needs of all of our kids.”

His wife, Karen Covert-Jones, said that, although she appreciates the programs the PTA brings to the schools, they are not a replacement for the enrichment programs.

“We have fallen into an average rating compared to other countries,” she said of United States pupil achievement. Covert-Jones went on about Guilderland, “We are contributing to the dumbing down of our society.”

Joe Giordano, a Farnsworth seventh-grader who last month gave the board a petition with 105 names, urging that the school’s enrichment teacher not be cut, gave the board some more names on Tuesday.

“Enrichment is a vital part of our school day,” he told the board. He said the reason he got so much out of the program was because of Escobar. “Cutting enrichment would be like cutting her life’s work,” he said.

His mother, Mary Giordano, said it would be a “huge loss” if the program were eliminated. She also said that the high school model is not applicable to middle school as students at the high school are tracked according to academic ability and have the chance to take college-level courses.

She said, too, that it would be unfair to heap more responsibilities upon classroom teachers at the middle school. “Think about them,” she urged the board.

Catherine Barber, a former school board member, said that teachers were “stressed out” with added testing requirements. She noted it would be difficult to differentiate curriculum when students of varying abilities are taught in the same classroom.

Sagar Kumar, a seventh-grader at Farnsworth, told the board, “In school, I don’t learn as much new information as I’d like to. Through enrichment, I’m being challenged more intellectually.”

Although he has an enrichment class only once every four days, he said, “Enrichment is one of the best parts of my day.”

His fourth-grade brother also learns in the elementary enrichment program. If the enrichment program were eliminated, he concluded, “We wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn more and go beyond.”

His mother, Shalin Kumar, agreed. Kids who are gifted, she said, are almost like students with special needs. “Gifted kids need to be challenged,” she said.

A college science teacher, she also said that she agreed with Covert-Jones about the dumbing down of American education.

She concluded by asking the board, “You are working for students at the lower level, why not the higher level?”

What’s next?

At the close of Tuesday’s meeting, two school board members spoke in favor of restoring the enrichment posts to the budget proposal.

“I know you’re saying enrichment programs don’t equate to enrichment,” Richard Wiesz said. “I don’t buy it.”

“What I’ve found over the years,” said board member Barbara Fraterrigo, “is you have to offer something substantial to these children…They get bored,” she said, and can even have behavioral problems.

Fraterrigo also said that she doesn’t think it is humanly possible for teachers, faced with so many new responsibilities, to take on differentiating the curriculum.

After the meeting, Wiles responded through The Enterprise, “The reality is, we had a big gap to close.”

Asked if she may reconsider cutting the enrichment jobs, Wiles said, “I am all ears. If a compelling case can be made and we have the resources to support it, we would consider it.”

She went on, “We often have to go deeper than we would want.” She noted that it was early yet in the budget process. The board doesn’t adopt a plan until April 3; voters have their say on May 15.

“We tried very, very hard not to eliminate programs,” Wiles said. She gave as an example a concern Weisz had raised.

It was the only other protest to the budget proposal mentioned at Tuesday’s meeting; Weisz had voiced concern about cutting an art teacher.

“Every child will have the same amount of time and expertise,” said Wiles. Currently, art teachers have 200 minutes of direct instructional time with students, she said. “This will put them at 240 while classroom teachers have 300 minutes of instruction,” said Wiles.

She concluded of setting the budget, “It’s a balancing act.”

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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