PARSIPPANY — Parents of Central Middle School and Brooklawn Middle School students say they are relieved to hear the schools will be returning to the old way of scheduling classes.
Last week the Parsippany-Troy Hills School District tried a new schedule for students at the middle schools but it was plagued with problems from the outset.
Complications with the implementation of the program caused students to have courses missing from their schedule, classes without a teacher assigned or classes without a room. Some students were forced to sit in the gym for hours with nothing to do.
At the Board of Education meeting held on Thursday, September 10, Acting Superintendent Dr. Nancy Gigante announced that the school would go back to last year’s schedule. Over thirty parents and students addressed the Board of Education and Administration about their concerns and experiences since school opened last Thursday.
Parsippany-Troy Hills Board of Education President Fran Orthwein opened up the meeting with a statement from the board:
Good evening, This is our first meeting since beginning the 2015 – 2016 school year. There are issues that have occurred, and the Board would like to address them immediately, as best we can. There are also some items that should be addressed early on, to allow this public meeting to be useful and effective for all in attendance. During all of our meetings, we have a public comment period, and the rules for this portion of our meeting are posted on the front page of every agenda. The change we are making for this evening is to allow for two public comment portions. We will have one immediately after these opening statements lasting for 90 minutes and limited to comments on the middle school scheduling issue. We will have another comment session after our regular business meeting. Now on to the main reason we are all here: First and foremost, we are here to apologize for the situation that is before us. We have always prided ourselves on the quality of our education, and in our effort to enhance the learning experience for our middle school students we approved a middle school reorganization and the implementation failed. And, again, on behalf of the Board, we are expressing our sincere apology. Two of our members are parents of middle school children, and all members have had children go through the school district. We know first-hand how stressful and confusing this issue has been to our middle school students and their families. The Board extends its heartfelt thanks to the staff, administrators, and guidance counselors that have worked tirelessly to address the Middle School scheduling problems. We completely understand that this has been an unacceptable start to the school year for our middle school students, their families, and our staff. Starting the school year without schedules was not the intent of this Board or anyone in Administration. Once the extent of the issue was identified, every person within the Administration and staff that could have helped, did. Over the past two weeks, they have been working literally days, nights and weekends since the problem was identified. While we understand that their efforts have not completely fixed the issues, they have made significant progress. Dr. Gigante will update you on the current state of the schedules and the plan going forward when the Board statement is concluded.
The Board extends its heartfelt thanks to the staff, administrators and guidance counselors that have worked tirelessly to address the Middle School scheduling problems. As of close-of-school Thursday, September 10th, we can report that all middle school students are receiving instruction in the core subject areas of language arts, math, science and social studies, in addition to the state mandated PE requirement. We want to assure everyone in our community that the Board has 2 priorities going forward: #1. The full-time focus and attention of our district will be to continue to correct this situation. And that will be done. #2. It is our responsibility to ensure that the district administration is functioning properly based on the policies we set. We will direct that a thorough and complete investigation be conducted to get to the root causes of the failed implementation. We will do everything in our power to prevent this type of problem in the future.
Furthermore, our Superintendent, Scott Rixford, took a 30 day medical leave last week that will continue through the beginning of October. We want to assure the community that the daily business of the district will continue under the direction of Dr. Gigante, who will serve as acting Superintendent. Again, we would like to extend our gratitude to the staff and Administrators for their extraordinary efforts over the past two weeks, in helping out with the Middle School schedules. Trying times like these truly demonstrate our district employees are willing to put in the extra effort to ensure our students have a great learning environment. We are confident that the staff in our District will continue to work hard for the students, and that the entire District will move forward, regroup and be stronger than ever.
Acting Superintendent Dr. Nancy Gigante stated:
Good evening. I am grateful for this opportunity to speak at length and in detail about what has been going on in our middle schools.
When this new middle school vision was presented to the Board and the public, it came after other options were proposed by teams of administrators and subsequently rejected. Throughout the months and months of discussion and debate on the pros and cons of it, everyone involved expressed concerns about its feasibility. Over the winter, as students and teachers were making choices and recommendations about courses, restrictions began to be placed on this already highly ambitious and remarkably unique scheduling structure. Still the proposal pushed on. Unfortunately, conversations in the spring and early summer about how to address logistical problems including facility utilization and staffing did not include all interested parties. When mid-August arrived, it was clear that it would be nearly impossible to implement this scheduling structure at both of our middle schools. Alternative solutions were recommended, but still the proposal pushed on until the Friday of Labor Day weekend when I was named Acting Superintendent for the district.
After debriefing that same Friday with counselors, general education and special education supervisors, building administrators, directors, members of Senior Cabinet, academic technology staff—everyone involved in trying to fix things— I fully understood the consequences of specific directives issued to those charged with “fixing the schedules.” I needed to act swiftly in order to re-open the parent portal and have students return to as much normalcy as I could provide. To this end, later that Friday of Labor Day weekend, after the district closed early for the day, I sat with supervisors in the basement conference room of my building as the counselors and academic tech staff sat upstairs, working until about 7:00PM to convert courses that had no hope of running into study halls or physical education classes for students. The proposal had pushed on to the point that all electives became forced into the same few periods and the core classes into the same remaining periods. What resulted was that there were no teachers available to teach the courses because they were all running at the same time and where there may have been teachers there was no regular classroom space. Of course, that was no solution at all, but as other recommended solutions had been rejected prior, this was what was left with about 72 hours or so before school reopened again on September 8th.
The counselors, academic tech staff, building administrators, and supervisors spent Labor Day weekend, through all hours of the day and night, from their basements and their living rooms, on their laptops and cell phones, texting and emailing, trying to get students into courses, making the core academic subjects of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, along with state-mandated physical education, our top priorities.
At some point over that weekend I also endeavored to clear up an unfair miscommunication that our software system, Genesis, was somehow to blame. From the beginning of our relationship with Genesis they have been nothing but knowledgeable, competent, and supportive with our district. Genesis employees were on conference calls helping those eleventh hour efforts as the proposal still pushed on. I want to take this opportunity again to reiterate that this was not the fault of Genesis and not a technology glitch.
Tuesday September 8th came and I, along with our content area supervisors, members of Senior Cabinet, and directors were in the middle schools when they opened. I witnessed firsthand the remarkable professionalism and unwavering dedication of our teachers. I cannot thank them enough for providing our students with reassuring, smiling faces in the hallways and meaningful, appropriate instruction in their classrooms. Our building administrators, too, handled this unfortunate and unbelievably trying situation with admirable grace and composed leadership. Our students were happy to be in school, they were reaching out with questions they had, and they were successfully navigating a very disappointing start to their school year. The Board of Education was supportive and appreciative of all its many employees who were rolling up their sleeves and working together to make better a situation that, for a long time coming, had presented many concerns and much consternation. Finally, I was thankful that the parents, who justifiably were experiencing the most frustration, did not bombard our schools or interfere with the procedures we had put in place to try to conduct the most productive day we could given the circumstances. And I will always be thankful to the parents who reached out to offer help and express their patience with us…patience that I know could not have been easy to grant.
We’ve now all lived five school days with this problematic schedule, although it seems much longer to many of us, and I come tonight prepared to make a recommendation for a longer term solution. What we needed to do on that Friday afternoon was never a solution. It was a temporary fix in order to return students to classes, to ensure core instruction, and to provide a safe, meaningful educational experience for our middle schoolers. I have spent time this week meeting with stakeholders in our school community in order to provide an informed recommendation to the Board of Education. Unfortunately, time between Tuesday and tonight did not permit me to meet formally with parents or students, but I hope, based on the emails both the Board and I have received, that my recommendation will meet with their approval as well. My recommendation has the support of my teachers, counselors, building administrators, Senior Cabinet members, and general and special education supervisors.
Whereas our priority should and will always be the safety of our students, followed closely by their educational, emotional, and social well-being, I think that in this situation I am equally as concerned with reducing anxiety…understandable anxiety on the part of our students, our parents, our teachers, and our administrators. I believe that after several years of change, change, change, new, new, new, it is in our district’s best interest to experience some familiarity.
I am therefore recommending a return for this school year to the 9-period, 40 minutes per period schedule that we had last school year and many before that. I am recommending a return to a five-day-a-week schedule for all classes, including reading and writing at all grade levels, physical education and health, all electives, and lunch. I am recommending that music lessons be scheduled as they always have, in a rotational basis throughout the entire school day. I am recommending that extra support in the areas of language arts and mathematics return to having individual programming provided for students who need it, rather than differentiating the type of schedules different “types” of students get or limiting what electives students in need of extra support are afforded.
Some of you, I know, will be happy with these recommendations, as were the teachers and administrators I mentioned earlier. We cannot get there overnight, however. We will need some time to accomplish it. I have the assurance from Genesis that we can do this expeditiously and I believe we now have procedures in place to ensure that. I do not feel confident enough to give an exact date of when it can be accomplished, but I can explain the steps we will take to get there.
We already have the student requests and teacher recommendations from last spring. We will use those to place our students. Whereas now students may be sitting in elective courses they did not choose, we can run the courses our students wanted, at least most of them, and adequately staff and house these classes. We can return to true teaming of students and teachers, whereas right now we do not have that at all. To that end, I am also recommending that we increase staffing, particularly at Central Middle School, to provide for a full third team at all grade levels, as the previous enrollment gap has lessened between the two middle schools, and I believe this will also help expedite the creation of a new schedule.
The creation of a new master schedule sounds daunting and it is. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as wiping out the student names from last school year and entering new ones. Students get promoted to different grade levels and therefore enrollment counts change; student needs are different from year to year; recommendations and requests are never exactly the same. But we will commit resources to getting this done. And we will involve all parties charged with making this happen in all decisions and all communications.
What will happen until it is done? We will need to stay in this schedule we currently have for a couple of reasons. For one, there is nowhere else to go. This is as good as it can get with our current staffing levels and current facility limitations. Over the past seven days, I have come to describe the situation like this. There is no light. We need to dig a new tunnel. In order to ever make what we are doing now work, we would need both double, or triple in some content areas, the number of teachers we have, but all only working part-time, coupled with a major addition of physical plant space. Secondly, I need to refocus our efforts—specifically those of my administrators, academic tech staff, and counselors—on getting a better schedule created. With all hands on deck, I am hopeful that we can have this done some time in October.
While still in this current schedule, parents can expect what they have come to expect in the normally-running courses their children are enrolled in. For some students this means a full schedules of classes, core and elective. For some it may mean core classes and two, one, or no electives. For the classes students were successfully scheduled for, teachers will be instructing and assessing students and entering information into Genesis Gradebook as usual. Parents will be able to see how their child is progressing in that course as they always have. At the end of this schedule, when we are ready to move to the new one, teachers will provide the interim comments they have always provided midway through a marking period so that parents have a more “narrative sense” of where their children are in their coursework. At that point as well, teachers will be able to articulate to one another, in the cases where a student’s teacher is switching, how the student has been progressing, sharing work folder artifacts and specific assessment data. Further, with the restitution of teacher teams in the new schedule, teachers will be able to spend time working collaboratively to ensure smooth transitions for students moving from one teacher to another.
Once we are ready to begin the new schedule, we will structure the remainder of the school year into three trimesters, each being a bit larger than a regular marking period. From a curriculum standpoint this is helpful because teachers wrote curriculum for new electives based mostly on a 3-days-a-week-for-a-semester basis, which works out to be about 54 days of instruction. That’s probably going to be close to how long a trimester will turn out to be. Student progress will not be brought into this new schedule in any formal sense; that is, a “grade” will not travel with them as they begin in a new schedule. Articulation will happen between and among teachers, but students will essentially begin the new schedule with a clean slate, earning formal grades, as we’ve come to know them, once the new schedule begins.
We will reschedule Back to School Nights to be after the new schedule is in place, so that parents can meet the teachers their students will have for the remainder of the school year. There are no plans to change parent-teacher conferences from their currently scheduled time, however. In terms of teacher evaluation, nothing will begin until the new schedule is underway. Teachers will not be evaluated in any way—through observations, lesson plans, or work folders— until we have begun the new schedule. Additionally, I have assured the teachers association leadership that we will work with them on meeting the state’s SGO requirements fairly and sensibly.
As I mentioned earlier, I know from conversations with parents, students, teachers, and administrators that many of you will be pleased to hear much of this recommendation. I will not avoid mentioning the one very substantial downside in addition to the fact that this can’t be accomplished overnight. In all courses, both core and elective, there will be the chance that in the new schedule students will not have all of the same teachers they currently do. Although no one is happy with this current schedule, I can anticipate that parents and students will be happy with their teachers, much like the teachers become connected to and happy with their students. I’m afraid there is no way I can ensure for you that students will not be assigned new teachers, as we need to, as best we can, return teachers to courses they were prepared to teach and in which they have experience teaching. In the new schedule, teachers may have classes made up of students they had been teaching all along and students who are new to them. While our teachers are very skilled at differentiating, I also know that they work collaboratively and from the same curriculum so that it is unlikely new students will be “lost” in a new class, nor will returning students feel a teacher is wasting time going over things they were already taught. I understand, however, that this is a recognizable downside of changing what we are currently doing. I feel completely certain in saying that teachers will, as mentioned before, work together to ensure that the students have smooth transitions from one to another, with continuity of instruction and a focus on everyone’s well being.
I know I have been long-winded. I told you I was welcoming this opportunity to explain things to all of you and I meant that. I am equally as honest in saying that this recommendation for the remainder of this school year is mine. I am taking full responsibility for it. I promise our Board and our entire school community that I will dig side-by-side with all of the people involved so that we can see the light at the end of this new tunnel as soon as we are humanly able. Thank you for your attention.
Although many of the parents were upset by the schedule glitches, they did praise the way teachers and staff handled the chaos at both middle schools.
Board member Timothy Berrios, who voted against the schedule changes last year, quickly made a motion to rescind all of the related resolutions approved in 2014. The vote was unanimous.