Parents, administration more comfortable with Steamboat Springs Middle School advanced education change

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— Steamboat Springs Middle School Principal Jerry Buelter jokingly refers to the conference room adjacent to his office as the “War Room.”

Walk in and it’s easy to see what he means. A long, rectangular, dark wood table sits in the middle, with office chairs lining its edges. The whiteboard is speckled — quite neatly, actually — with dry-erase charts and words. Stapled to the walls are large sheets of white paper with words such as “staffing,” “non-negotiables” and “options.”

It’s this organized mess inside the “War Room” that reveals the work that the principal, gifted and talented staff and the school’s scheduling committee put in to make a shift from one advanced learning program for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to another, starting next year.

At the May 5 Steamboat Springs School Board meeting, Buelter and middle school Assistant Principal Heidi Chapman-Hoy presented some of the details about the jump from its current program to its new gifted and talented teaching regimen.

The shifts to advance learning in the middle school’s halls were made in response to a variety of anticipated factors. The current program — known as X-Core — bundles advanced students from their respective grades into a “school within a school,” Buelter said. Students would test as gifted in one or more subjects, such as math or science, but take all advanced-placement core subjects together as a grade-level group.

With X-Core, students are unable to pick and choose which subject they wish to take under the advanced umbrella. Gifted students stay together for most of the day and only join general education students in things such as elective courses or physical education.

Under the new system, the school within a school will go away, and students can be identified as advanced under certain subjects and take standard courses under others. Students can opt in or out of gifted courses much more freely starting next school year.

The opportunity for students who don’t quite meet the gifted identification to enter advanced courses will be much more open, as well, administrators said.

“A student might be identified in language arts and won’t be in advanced math just because they’re identified in language arts,” Buelter said. “They’ll be in the appropriate math class, and vice versa.”

Middle school gifted education coordinator Sally Howard said “middle school philosophy” played a big role in the restructuring. Teachers team up in teams of two at each grade level at the middle school, splitting students evenly down the middle as much as possible. Gifted-identified students are pulled evenly from that split, getting advanced instruction from those two teachers, creating a very uniform system that “served beautifully” under the X-Core model, Howard said.

The change also comes in response to the middle school’s already high enrollment, as well as a large influx expected for next year’s sixth-grade class.

In order to accommodate incoming students and fit them into teachers’ schedules without the ability to add extra full-time staff, some changes desperately were needed from the scheduling committee, especially looking at 2014-15 and beyond, Howard and Buelter said.

“We’ll have to look at those 200 sixth-graders especially and what adjustments we have to make,” Buelter said. “We know going in next year, there will be some changes. But if this works well, it should be a little easier for us to make that change.”

“A lot of the population doesn’t understand that you just don’t add a class to middle school models because everything is done in teams,” Howard added. “Teachers teach in multiple subjects.”

Howard said it wasn’t more than a few weeks ago that the scheduling committee and those involved in the restructuring the advanced education program felt comfortable with a final product for 2014-15.

The district conducted an external review of the program in December. District Superintendent Brad Meeks said students’ parents were involved in the process from the onset. But a letter that went out to parents in early March said the school was looking to eliminate the program, and concern followed.

“I honestly didn’t know what their goal was,” said Chris Sias, parent of two current middle school gifted students. “Our concern was when X-Core was implemented, it was based on research and was really well thought out. It has a big group of kids. They said they were going to get rid of it, but they didn’t really present what they were going to do.”

Buelter described the X-Core program as “comfortable” among many parents. A hint of change, the principal said, and some wondered if it was the school’s way of phasing out its advanced education program altogether.

“You see, when you’ve opened up the box, they’re fearful of, ‘Now, where does my kid go? Is this Jerry’s way of getting rid of the program?’” Buelter said. “It’s not. I really do believe (last week’s meetings), once they saw the schedule, they saw where their kid would be, and they were OK.”

Buelter said that there would be a lot of “learning on the fly” for administrators and teachers in the restructured program’s first year. The ultimate goal in the process, the principal said, was adhering to that middle school philosophy of sharing students across grade levels and following through with the final decision.

As is the case every year, Buelter said the committees and administration this time next year would re-evaluate schedule adjustments and make changes wherever necessary. But administrators think — as a general consensus — that parents and school officials are now on the same page with the shift.

“I think the outcome has been positive,” Meeks said. “A lot of the concerns the parents were raising early on have been addressed. I certainly understand their concern.”

To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll

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