2017-11-09 / Front Page

‘Tracking’ Change at TMS Sparks Concern

By Brooke Constance White

A recent change in the way teachers and administrators group students together at Newport’s Thompson Middle School has parents concerned. A lack of communication between administration and parents, coupled with a not-so-smooth transition, came to a head the day after Halloween.

On Nov. 1, Newport School District Superintendent Colleen Jermain and Thompson administrators held an informal meeting with parents to discuss a change from grouping students based on academic ability to diversifying the groups to include multiple ability levels, or what’s referred to as heterogeneous grouping.

The administrators, including Thompson Interim Principal Bob Campion, and Student Services Director Allynn Grantham, among others, also discussed the recent transition from heterogeneous grouping to having advanced English language arts (ELA) and math classes.

While parents were generally appreciative of the administration’s desire to communicate with them and offer higher-level ELA and math classes, several expressed frustration that the conversation happened too late and that their children were not being challenged.

Until the 2016-17 school year, Thompson students were broken into groups, or “tracked,” based on their reading abilities. Those who excelled were placed in group four and other students fell into three other groups, according to their respective reading levels. Each group of students traveled together to four subject areas: math, social studies, science and ELA.

In 2015, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) audited Thompson and reported that dividing students based on ability created barriers for all schoolchildren to have access to the same opportunities.

RIDE’s feedback prompted Jermain and the middle school administration to regroup students into two clusters, the first containing groups one and two; the second made up of groups three and four. Sixth and seventh grade students were put into groups based on their reading level, and eighth grade students were put into groups based on their math ability. At the end of last year, Jermain said that both students and teachers reported that this new approach wasn’t working.

In July, when administrators were planning for the current school year, Jermain said she told the Thompson administration to begin grouping the students heterogeneously and then, five to six weeks in, allow teachers to shift them between groups as they saw fit.

“We moved forward on that and didn’t inform parents, which is my fault,” Jermain said in a phone interview. “We had parents who saw one model in the spring when they toured the building, and then saw a different model and grouping when they came back in September. Communication with parents is something we’re trying to improve upon going forward.”

When parents complained that their children were now grouped with students who might be distracting and have behavior problems, the administration again changed the grouping system in early October so that students could be put into an advanced math or ELA class. But just because a student excels in one area does not mean they will necessarily be placed in other advanced classes, Jermain said. For social studies and science, the students were grouped heterogeneously.

Aside from the need to implement RIDE’s recommendations, Jermain said that the administration also looked at the extensive behavioral issues facing Thompson last spring and learned that the majority of these issues were coming from several different pockets in the school. The behavior problems seemed to stem from children in the lower academic ability groups, she said.

Since changing the grouping to heterogeneous with advanced ELA and math options, Campion, Thompson’s interim principal, said dean referrals for students with behavioral issues have gone down compared to last year’s numbers.

During the Nov. 1 meeting, Karlie Cesarini, a Thompson parent, said she didn’t think students needed to be tracked, per se, for the administration to put a “gifted and talented” program in place for students who are excelling in the classroom.

“There are behavior issues here at Thompson, and when you have like-minded kids who are trying to learn and are in a classroom with kids with behavior issues, the students who want to learn aren’t challenged and get distracted,” Cesarini told administrators at the meeting. “You pulled the plug without having a plan in place, and figuring it all out while our kids are in school is a ramification of that.”

According to Jermain, many students transitioning from Thompson to Rogers High School felt as though they weren’t capable and lacked confidence after being grouped at Thompson with those of lower academic abilities.

“All of our students are capable, but we want to enhance the students as individuals and make sure we’re teaching them as best we can,” Jermain said. “At this point, teachers have the ability through flexible grouping to move students around if they feel like the student isn’t being challenged.”

Assistant Superintendent Kimberly Behan said it’s the administration’s job to prepare students for the future.

“Our students would go to Rogers and feel like they were already kind of sunk because they’d been in a track that didn’t have the opportunity that other students had,” she said. “We don’t want that. We want our students to know that they have every opportunity available to them.”

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