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The Differentiation and Enrichment Study Committee of School District 65 held a town hall meeting on Feb. 13 to gather community input in three areas: current literacy enrichment programs; implementation of differentiated instruction; and establishing a program for identified gifted and talented students.

The Committee is charged with studying the District’s differentiation and enrichment programs and making recommendations to the School Board. One of the Board’s goals for this year is to conduct the study and implement recommendations in the 2008-09 school year to ensure that all students are challenged to the full extent of their academic potential.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy told the 30 parents who attended the town hall meeting that the Committee’s work was “one of the most important endeavors we’ve undertaken.”

At the Board’s Jan. 31 meeting, Dr. Murphy told Board members that the “differentiation/enrichment effort offers us a way to come up with a more rigorous and robust learning experience for students across the range of academic readiness. We see that as a major effort.” He said professional development will be an important part of the initiative.

Most of the parents who spoke at the town hall meeting said their children were high-achieving students. While many praised the District’s efforts, they said in the same breath that differentiated instruction was not implemented consistently across the District and high-achieving children were not being challenged by an engaging or rigorous curriculum. Given the format of the meeting, parents who spoke did not give their names at the meeting.

Differentiated Instruction

The Committee defines differentiated instruction as “instruction matched to student needs in terms of their readiness to learn a specific topic, their interests and the ways in which they learn.” Many parents said that the success of differentiated instruction depends on the teacher, and that it was not meeting the needs of many children.

One parent said, “Some of my children’s teachers have been phenomenal in differentiation. Some years have been painful and excruciating.” Another said, “The teachers that do a great job are born teachers, and they’re truly amazing. We need to find a way to boost and support the teachers who are not doing as well.”

A number of parents recognized the difficulty of teaching a range of students. One said, “The idea of differentiation is fabulous, but it’s difficult to implement effectively. It’s difficult to keep kids engaged.

Another said, “At the middle schools, teachers have kids at the first-grade to the 12th-grade level. That’s a tough nut to crack for teachers. The District needs to find ways to support those teachers.”

Kids Not Being Challenged

Many parents said their children were not being challenged. One parent said, “There’s pressure to bring up low-achieving students, which is the correct and right thing to do. But it’s difficult to do that and challenge the higher performing kids.”

Other parents said the following:

• “Some kids learn something the first time around and they get bored when the teacher comes back to it.”

• “High-performing students don’t get challenged in the classrooms they are in.”

• “I don’t see it [differentiated instruction] at all in the middle schools. Now that the District is using the MAP test, it should identify kids performing strongly and provide differentiated instruction for them.”

• In middle school, “the only differentiation our son received is because we pushed.”

• “If differentiated instruction was working across schools and across all teachers, it would address the needs of gifted students. I don’t think it’s working with higher-achieving students. You have crossword puzzles and worksheets for kids who are finished with their work.”

One parent questioned whether differentiation should remain the model. She said, “I think we should consider tracking. We should consider acceleration. … Schools have held back the best and brightest of students. We are not holding our highest-performing students to high expectations and high rigor.”

The Curriculum/Rigor

Many parents said the District’s curriculum was not interesting and not rigorous. “The curriculum is not very inspiring to most of the kids. It’s boring,” one parent said. Another said, “The District seems to be really focused on skill. We don’t seem to have an enriched curriculum.”

Several parents said the District should use a more dynamic approach and teach reading and math in other content areas such as science, music or social justice. This would be “more interesting,” and it would “engage the kids,’” they said.

A number of parents said more emphasis needed to be put on writing:

• “There isn’t enough writing going on, particularly in the middle schools.”

• “I hope the District mandates writing across the curriculum and it should be differentiated so kids learn to think.”

• “I’m freaking out that I don’t see an accelerated writing program.”

Several parents said the only area in the District where acceleration is offered is the District’s math program, which includes geometry at the high school. One parent questioned why the District was tampering with a successful program and considering offering geometry at District 65’s schools.

Another common thread was the concern that the District needed to increase the rigor of its curriculum. One parent said, “We are not holding our highest-performing students to high expectations and high rigor.” Others expressed similar views: “I would love for this District to raise the rigor, especially in areas of writing and social sciences and the softer subjects,” and, “I think the rigor is extremely important in keeping kids challenged. I want to reinforce that.”

A Gifted Program

There appeared to be little support for creating a separate classroom for gifted children, which the District defined as children scoring in the 95th percentile rank or higher based on local norms, but a number of parents supported pull-out programs for gifted students. Most parents who spoke felt that high-achieving students were not being challenged and that their needs were not being met through differentiated instruction. There was general consensus that the needs of gifted children needed to be addressed.

One parent said, “As a country we’re investing in kids at the bottom rung to bring them up, but we’re not investing in kids at the top who are our future leaders.”

Another parent noted that 20 percent of the students at Evanston Township High School tested in the top 95th percentile rank, based on national norms, so the number of high-achieving kids was not a small group.

Enrichment Programs

Parents were asked to comment on programs such as Young Authors, Junior Great Books and Contemporary Classics. Several parents said they were not aware of the programs and the District needed better communication. Others said the programs were “fabulous,” but they were not implemented consistently across the District. Still others said they did not regard the programs as enrichment programs because they were taught by parent volunteers and not by teachers.

Suggestions were made that the programs be led by teachers or librarians.

Next Steps

The Committee, which has been meeting and studying the issue since late October, is scheduled to present its recommendations to the Board on March 4, and the Board is scheduled to discuss the recommendations on April 21.