School weighs balance between character and ‘3 R’s’

CHATHAM — Middle School Interim Principal Annmarie Barkman presented a new school schedule to the Board of Education this week, and a few parents and a staff member turned out to express their concerns about the changes.

Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo said at the Tuesday, September 13 meeting that the new schedule fits the Character Education program around academic subjects instead of academics fitting around the Character Education program. The middle school was named a National and State School of Character because of a program that teaches positive character traits to students. But the school’s test scores in math and English Language Arts (ELA) were below the state average. Only nine students in the middle school, out of almost 400, achieved a “mastery” level on the ELA state exam, according to Ms. Barkman.

The change didn’t sit well with Camille Freedner, a middle school staffer who was very involved in the Character Education program. At the start of the meeting she said, “We just got the award and programs are going out the door.”

Parents worried that arts programs have been cut in the new schedule and that there is not enough time for recess. They also questioned Ms. Barkman’s tone at a meeting early in the school year that stressed respect for authority.

Ms. Barkman presented a graph of student referrals for behavior that showed a spike, with nearly double the amount of referrals between 2009-10 school year and last year. “I did very strongly talk to the students about that,” she said of discipline.

She also said, “We can raise our level of mastery in ELA and math.” In her new schedule, teachers have longer blocks for teaching academic subjects. She and Ms. Nuciforo emphasized that no enrichment classes, like art and music, were cut, and Mr. Barkman added an extra physical education class, called Wellness, and Computer Science classes for students who are not interested in taking art classes. She said it gave more opportunities to all students.

Students involved in Character Education events will no longer be taken out of academic courses. Ms. Barkman said after meeting with teachers she heard that preserving academic time was a big issue in the school.

She said several times that it was only day seven of school so every change is very new. Concerned parents had already contacted her and she said had a policy of getting back to them within one day of their calls. She said she wants the school to move more into email communications and urged parents to get the district their email addresses.

Ms. Barkman said that over 20 students returned the Middle School this year after going to private schools.

Ms. Nuciforo reminded the board that Ms. Barkman was taking over after many years of the same principal in the Middle School. Ms. Nuciforo also stressed the importance of improving test scores to the state level and, as she said, with the district’s demographic profile, students should be testing higher than the average.

Board member Mike Clark said he felt they should not lose sight of enrichment and character education as part of the student learning.

After Ms. Barkman’s presentation Ms. Freedner said, “When we start looking at character and curriculum as two separate things, we are going down the wrong path.”

“It is a major change and people feel really strongly about it,” said Board President John Wapner. He anticipates more discussion on the topic throughout the year.

The board plans to hold its meetings in the Mary E. Dardess Elementary School Library. The next meeting will be Tuesday September 27 at 6:30 p.m.

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email .

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