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Strategic Plan Emerges From Clouds of Negativity

Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 2.19.48 PMFrom the time Superintendent of Schools Dr. Penny MacCormack first introduced the district’s new Strategic Plan, most of the commentary and debates that I have witnessed have focused on its negative aspects. It is understandable that there was confusion about the many goals the plan aims to accomplish and the strategies that will be employed in September. Now that the new school year is approaching and lesson plans and new assessments are being created, the good qualities of the plan are finally beginning to emerge from the clouds of negativity.

To get more information about the updated plans to implement the Common Core standards and new goals for the district, I attended last Wednesday night’s session of the Parent Leadership Academy sponsored by Montclair Public Schools and the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence (MFEE). The meeting was conducted by Mrs. Gail Clarke, the newly appointed Chief Academic Officer and Superintendent of Instruction. After hearing about some of the many new ideas that Mrs. Clark and Dr. MacCormack have for Montclair’s curriculum, I was very disappointed to learn that for the 2013-14 school year, students in 12th grade and AP classes will not have lesson plans based on the new standards or be included in the interim assessments. For those students, myself included, mid-terms, finals and the regular assessments throughout the year will continue.

With that aside, there are a couple of points I would like to clarify for those naysayers of the new plan. #1 – Teachers are allowed (and encouraged) to determine their own ways to achieve the new standards. Creativity is allowed! As Mrs. Clark said, the goal in all of this is “to give all students the same opportunity to be exposed to and master the same material”. The beauty of this is that Montclair teachers can continue to be creative and independent, but will be required to follow the new curriculum standards in creating new lesson plans for September. Consistency in objectives and standards will level the playing field for all students, and that, in my opinion, is a great thing. #2 – We won’t be testing for six days at a time. The six day assessment time period is merely a window in which exams will be administered, and teachers have the freedom to choose the day to administer the exam that works best for their class schedule and their students’ progress.

With those clarifications in mind, there are many aspects to look forward to. For one, the new quarterly tests will replace midterms and finals, easing the weight placed on two major tests and replacing it with four smaller ones with pre-assessment reviews focusing on the priority standards emphasized by the Common Core. Teachers will continue to assess students’ learning progress with grading for other work, projects, etc. Teachers will not be teaching “to the test”, but rather teaching to the new objectives and standards.  Currently 53 teams of volunteer teachers are working to develop the assessments that will be standard for all students taking the same class regardless of teacher.

The data collected by the district from these assessments will let teachers and school administrators know that a student may need additional help in a certain area, and they will address that area before it becomes a major problem. Assigned interventions will prevent students from lagging behind their peers by identifying problem areas that tend to build over time from misunderstanding or not fully grasping a foundation concept. The level of corrective intervention assigned to address student needs will be determined by a tier system of 1, 2 or 3, giving a tier 3 student the most intervention. According to Mrs. Clark, there will be time built into the schedule to allow for this extra assistance. If a significant number of students under one teacher show similar weaknesses, school administrators will know to assist that teacher improve their teaching methods in that area.

Another benefit of this plan that Mrs. Clark emphasized is that language arts (ELA) will be infused into all lessons and classes in math, science, and history starting in 6th grade with the hope of improving writing and reading skills district-wide. Not only will this strengthen students’ literacy skills, but it will also reduce the shocking transition from middle school to high school, and then from 9th grade to 10th grade (which is another focus of the plan). The expectations for writing in these grades change dramatically within one grade’s difference, so this may help bridge the gap. Additionally, diversity in all levels of classes at the high school will be looked at, specifically in high level classes.

Details of the Marshall Evaluation Plan and Rubric for teachers were not presented as scheduled due to time constraints, but will be unveiled to parents at a later meeting, possibly the School Action Team (SAT) meetings held at each school. The Marshall Plan will ensure that teaching is consistently good and effective, and teaching objectives are being met. Students who monitor their own achievement will benefit from greater oversight of teachers’ grading of assignments and input into the new Skyward information system, replacing StarPortal in September. Hopefully the added oversight of the Marshall Plan will eliminate previous wait times of up to eight weeks for a graded essay or project and delayed input of grades to StarPortal until the end of a marking period.

Unfortunately as a rising senior, I will not benefit from the new curriculum and standards of the Strategic Plan, but welcome the numerous benefits of this plan for the next generation of Montclair students who will want and need an education based on the highest standards and best opportunities for all.

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