Skyridge parents debate transparency of class changes

New GATE plan set to go before trustees in the spring, superintendent says
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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A new third-grade class that divides students based on skills is sparking debate among Skyridge Elementary School parents and teachers. The pilot high-achiever class has some questioning how the school district selects gifted students. District looking at third-grade GATE This year the district is running a pilot high achiever class for third-graders as well as specific GATE, or Gifted and Talented Education, classes for fourth grade and fifth grade, according to Michele Schuetz, superintendent of the Auburn Union School District. “We already had a gate program for fourth through eighth grade, and we are in kind of a decision making mode this year to decide if we are going to do anything different,” Schuetz said. Schuetz said last year the district sent out surveys to the parents of the district’s GATE identified elementary school students asking them about different GATE options for the future. Schuetz said the district received the majority of responses from Skyridge parents showing interest in providing more programs for their students. While the school did have identified GATE students, they had previously been put into clusters and placed throughout fourth and fifth grade classes rather than in specific classes. While the pilot third-grade class is not considered GATE because students have not been officially identified as GATE, it is being called high achiever class, Schuetz said. “It’s just a pilot for the committee to do some analysis,” she said. “Do we want to do third grade (GATE) next year, what would it look like, what kind of defined process would we want to use?” Parents say not enough notification Suzanna Johnson, who has a third-grade daughter at Skyridge who is not in the pilot class, said she has several concerns about the classes, including the fact that non-GATE parents were not given prior notification that the changes were going to be made. “Even if the school district did not legally have to inform the entire Skyridge community that they were segregating their third-grade students based on vague criteria, they should have done so out of common courtesy and respect for the parents, Skyridge staff and students affected by the changes this year,” Johnson said. Schuetz said the first meeting of the GATE Advisory Committee was during the last week of school in June, because that was when all members were available to meet. She said committee meetings are advertised through the district’s call system and newsletters. Kyle Vogt, also the parent of a Skyridge third-grader, said he was also concerned that all parents weren’t notified of the change. “My biggest concern after kind of seeing what their procedures were is that the parents of the three grade levels weren’t notified about it,” Vogt said. “Personally I don’t necessarily agree with the homogeneous group … I just think the parents should have had the right to find out about it since it’s such a change in class structure.” Vogt said when he spoke to Schuetz last week she apologized that he had to find out about the classes through another parent and said she would be notifying parents in an upcoming newsletter. Teachers speak out On Sept. 15, several Skyridge teachers drafted a letter to the GATE Advisory Committee, formed at the end of last school year, and the district’s board of trustees, expressing their disappointment in not being consulted about the classes and that they did not agree with classes dedicated solely to GATE or high achieving students. “Non-GATE classrooms are left with a disproportionate number of students challenged with behavior problems, poor work ethics, and lack of parental support,” the letter stated. “In addition, these classes have a higher number of lower-performing English learners and socio-economically disadvantaged youth.” Schuetz said the Skyridge classes are pilot classes and began because of parent concerns that GATE children’s needs weren’t being met and because of the committee’s recommendations. Because nothing has been formally put in place yet, a vote by the district’s board was not needed. A board decision Schuetz said the district plans to continue to receive input from the committee and then bring the GATE programs back to the board in the spring for a decision. “The new plan will be presented to the board in the spring,” she said. “So whether or not this model continues, that will be a board decision.” Daniel Berlant, president of the Auburn Union Board of Trustees, said the board has not taken any action yet and the district’s goal is to challenge every type of student. “The biggest thing to remember is this is a pilot program that is actually nothing new to this district,” Berlant said. “The district has had a GATE program … it’s just the fact that in Auburn Union, because of budget cuts, we have not really invested the money into the program as we have in the past. But we had a lot of parents concerned this last year saying, ‘Our students need to be pushed as well … and if you aren’t going to provide that, then we are going to leave.’” How were they chosen? Johnson said she also has concerns about how the children in the high achiever third-grade class were chosen with no set criteria. It’s a question the school’s new principal could not answer either. Schuetz said it’s a decision typically left to a site’s administration and teachers. Jenn Lewandowski, principal at Skyridge, said she was not involved in the decision of which third-graders were put into the high achiever class because she was not principal last year. She said typically teachers sending students onto their next grades create new class lists. Lewandowski said she has heard concerns from parents about the classes. “And now I am involved in the GATE Advisory Committee,” she said. “I have attended the meeting we have had so far this year, and I think the committee is going through a very proactive process to look at what’s been put in place and having a very good discussion about what GATE parents want.” Kim Haswell, who is currently chairwoman of the committee but was not involved when it was formed in June, said she decided to participate because she was concerned about the lack of transparency and clarity in the process. Haswell said she thinks parents who don’t have GATE indentified children might not respond to GATE literature or calls sent out by the district the way GATE parents would. “I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another about the decisions (about the pilot classes) that were made,” Haswell said. “It’s just how the decisions were executed that was basically my concern. I think (Johnson’s) concerns are valid. Everyone is concerned about the well being of all the kids, so from that perspective I think her concerns are valid. But there are also concerns from parents that the needs of high achieving kids aren’t being met.” ‘Their fullest potential’ Kristen Wingate, a Skyridge parent who has been on the committee since June, said she thinks the departure of former Skyridge principal Scott Pickett and finding a new principal made the summer a difficult one for the school. Wingate said she and other parents felt it was time to offer more challenges to the GATE students, because lower achieving students had been doing well lately. “They had had a significant leap in their test scores, and it’s actually the advanced students who hadn’t had a significant leap, and if anything they were going down,” Wingate said. “Now is a good chance, since that seems to be firmly in place and being successful, to switching focus and trying to bring our high achievers higher, to their fullest potential.” Reach Bridget Jones at