By Nona Tepper
About 50 residents gathered at Roosevelt Middle School on Jan. 15 for a presentation by River Forest District 90 staff and administrators about proposed changes to the school schedule, amid changes to the school's instructional philosophy, curriculum and eventual updates to the grading system.
"We have a community out there who pays a significant rate to ensure that these schools are awesome," Superintendent Ed Condon said at the meeting. "So yes, absolutely, these are topics of community interest about ensuring that your child's education is all about excellence for everyone, not just for some. Those are things that we've got to continue to push forward."
Administrators have proposed Roosevelt learners would go through four, 80-minute learning blocks daily in an effort to increase learning time for math, integrate reading and writing curriculum, increase subject rigor and more. Students currently have eight, 40-minute classes daily. Subject blocks proposed would be math, exploratory and physical education, reading and writing, and social studies and science on alternating days. While the block schedule would increase students' learning time in math, it would decrease fifth- and sixth-graders' English Language Arts time and all students' foreign language time.
"The average student in the state gets 72 minutes of math and our students get 40," Roosevelt Principal Larry Garstki said at the meeting. "They just can't compete and our scores have declined slightly. Not a lot, but they have declined over the last couple of years."
Under the proposed schedule, fifth-graders would receive a third of a year of foreign language instruction, down from two-thirds of a year they currently receive. Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders would receive six quarters of foreign language, down from eight total quarters of foreign language they get while at Roosevelt. Officials said they chose to cut foreign language because it was the only subject that the state does not mandate D90 teach.
But resident Emily Paster said cutting foreign language hours sends the wrong message to students entering a global economy.
"Foreign language in particular is a subject that needs repetition, that needs to be a daily thing," Paster said at the meeting. "To do it for a half a year, and then not do it for half a year, and then expect a child to take a test on that subject and show up in a higher level language class at OPRF, I think would be very tricky."
Garstki said D90 learners would enroll in foreign language courses during alternating quarters, like one and three or two and four.
"That comes from one of our foreign language teachers, who thought of that, so the most that they would ever miss would be one quarter," he said.
Resident Steve Lefko noted the proposed change in schedule is concurrent with the change in instructional philosophy — D90 has adopted the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) pedagogy — as well as a curriculum change and eventual grading system change. UDL aims to drive equity and offers students more freedom in how they achieve mastery of a subject, from 3D printing to songs to essays, whatever they're most comfortable with. Previously, D90 teachers used the differentiated instructional model, where they tried to serve every students' individual learning need all at once.
"What we're trying to do in D90 is be extremely intentional," Condon said at the meeting, stressing that the district's adoption of UDL is unrelated to the proposed block schedule. "It's centered around trying to ensure that our students have an excellent learning experience — all of them and in every way."
Lefko called the changes "unprecedented" at the historically high-performing district.
"I think it's best for the community if the board takes the time to communicate the why, how, what before making any further changes," he said at the meeting.
Ralph Martire, D90 board president, countered that the district has addressed the instructional philosophy and curriculum changes at previous public meetings, the recordings of which are available on district90.org.
"We do our job communicating to people; people have got to be willing to come to the meetings," he said.
Condon "disagreed" with Lefko's analysis, saying that most of the teachers at Roosevelt Middle School have reached out to the administration saying they need more time teaching.
After the Illinois State Board of Education adopted the Common Core learning standards in 2010, D90 updated its math, science and English curriculum accordingly. Over the last three years, the district has partnered with Columbia University to train teachers on the new curriculum, which translates to a block schedule. Last year, D90 teachers were surveyed about what they're teaching, school-wide issues they see, ways to become more efficient and other matters. Staff said they didn't have enough hours in the day to get through the year-long math curriculum.
"We currently have eight math units in a year and 40 minutes in a day. It's not enough time to cover the standards for the year," said Alison Hawley, director of curriculum and instruction, at the meeting.
Over the summer, staff worked with a consultant to create a better schedule at D90, in an effort to increase students' math learning time. Schedules went through several iterations and staff eventually determined the block schedule was the best fit.
"The eight-period school day was actually created for the purpose of preparing children for their inevitable jobs in industrial society, where they would move from one station at the sound of a bell to complete a task at another station," Condon said. "That doesn't work anymore."
The D90 board voted after the Journal's press time on Jan. 22 about whether to hold another community feedback session on Feb. 5 regarding changes to the proposed schedule, which cannot be implemented until the board votes to approve it. The administration has not yet presented the schedule to the board.
"We've spent a tremendous amount of time turning screws all over the place, and making sure nothing collapses, and this current iteration is holding up, but it doesn't mean there aren't other options we haven't uncovered, which is why we wanted to do a feedback session," Hawley said.
In addition to adopting a new curriculum and school schedule, D90 aims to adopt a new standards-based grading system, although staff and consultants are still refining what the "hybrid model" would look like, Hawley said, adding that letter grades will remain. Garstki said any new grading system wouldn't be adopted until "after next year."
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