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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 16, 2011

GCSD report card
Principals don’t want to teach to the test, co-teaching is emphasized

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — All seven Guilderland schools continue in “good standing,” according to the latest school report card, presented on June 6 to the school board.

As with districts across the state, the data, based on tests taken in the 2009-10 school year, showed fewer students in the proficient and advanced category — that is, in levels 3 or 4 — since cut scores were raised by the state in an effort to ultimately make New York students more college ready.

Board member Colleen O’Connell said she’d like to see an increase in the percentage of elementary students scoring at Level 4.

The Guilderland presentation this year stressed the successes and challenges of individual schools as leaders from each of the seven schools made independent presentations.

Two major themes emerged during the presentation. Several elementary principals stressed that they want to continue to educate the whole child and not simply teach to the test.

And, at all levels, the educational leaders spoke of the importance of co-teaching, in which special-education teachers work with regular classroom teachers.

“We’ve worked hard to break down silos between general education and special education,” said Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton.

The challenge to have students with disabilities meet requirements has become more difficult now since districts are permitted to except just 1 percent of their special-needs population; 99 percent of students with disabilities now must meet the same requirements as other students.

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo questioned the worth of the co-teaching model. “I don’t get a lot of positive vibes,” she said from other districts that have tried it. Elementary-school teachers don’t feel they have the background in special education, and, she said, “They feel it’s detrimental to other classroom students.” High-school teachers don’t feel they have the subject matter background, said Fraterrigo.

Singleton responded that Guilderland has been co-teaching for decades at the high school and middle school. Teachers have to have time to plan together, which, he said, has been “a hurdle for us.”

But Singleton also said, “To bring theses two worlds together, you have them learning from each other.”

Singleton started his presentation, saying, “I don’t think it will come as much of a surprise…but we are certainly in the midst of great change.” In addition to the changes in cut scores for English and math tests in third through eighth grade, there are also changes in graduation requirements, less flexibility for students with disabilities, and required Response to Intervention by 2012 for reading in kindergarten through fourth grade. Guilderland started the early help for needy students this year and intends to expand the RtI model to the secondary level.

Singleton went on to quote Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education on problems with the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

“This law has created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed,” said Duncan. “We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk.”

Although Guilderland is far from being labeled a failed district, Singleton said, it is feeling the trajectory of goals that appear impossible to reach.

New York State has set up accountability under the federal legislation to include the math and English scores, for a third each, and for the final third, elementary science and the high-school graduation rate.

Guilderland has done exceedingly well in social studies exams for fifth- and eighth-graders and on proficiency exams in French, German, and Spanish — all of which the state has now abolished.

Elementary schools

Guilderland’s five different elementary schools show “some very distinct demographics and programs,” said Singleton, pointing out that Guilderland Elementary has a large number of English language learners, and Lynnwood Elementary draws special-education students from throughout the district. Students with disabilities at Lynnwood did not make adequate yearly progress, as defined by the state, in English.

Peter Brabant, Altamont’s principal, presented charts showing 71 percent of Altamont third-graders scored at or above Level 3 in both math and English. At levels 1 and 2, students require remedial help.

For fourth-graders, 62 percent were proficient in English and 79 percent in math. And for fifth graders, 84 percent tested at the proficient level in English and 98 percent in math.

All of the fourth-graders were proficient in science. All five of the Guilderland elementary schools did very well on this test, one where the cut scores, unlike in English and math, were not changed.

Brabant counted as a success that nearly a third of Altamont students scored at Level 4, the advanced level, and overall met or exceeded achievement compared to similar low-needs schools.

“We need to decrease the achievement gap between subgroups — economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities,” said Brabant.

A second challenge, he said, is to respond to the increase in state cut scores with an approach for kindergarten through fifth grade.

“In this environment, it’s very easy to become a test-prep school,” said Brabant, noting that across the district school leaders and staff prefer to respond comprehensively “for the whole child.”

Altamont plans to refine scheduling and training to enhance co-teaching so that special-education teachers and regular classroom teachers work together.

Christopher Sanita, the principal of Pine Bush Elementary, presented data showing 67 percent of third-graders, 86 percent of fourth-graders, and 72 percent of fifth-graders were proficient in English. And, according to test scores, proficiency levels for math were at 74 percent for third-graders, 89 percent for fourth-graders, and 90 percent for fifth-graders.

All the fourth-graders were proficient in science.

Sanita named as successes: co-teaching support in math and writing, and maintaining the balance between best instructional practices and test preparation.

He listed two challenges: meeting the needs of individual students who have not met proficiency levels, supporting them so they perform at their individual best, and scheduling common planning time for grade-level teachers and support-service staff so they can collaborate.

Sanita said that Pine Bush would continue to analyze data to identify gaps in student learning, to develop activities to promote student independence, and to strengthen student understanding of descriptors in language tests like “best choice” and “most likely.”

The principal of Guilderland Elementary School, Allan Lockwood, went over the test results from his school: 74 percent of third-graders, 76 percent of fourth-graders and 68 percent of fifth-graders were proficient in English while in math 77 percent of third-graders, 87 percent of fourth-graders, and 81 percent of fifth-graders were proficient.

In science once again all the fourth-graders were proficient.

Lockwood listed as successes a high percentage of students scoring at levels 3 or 4 on all state tests compared with schools across New York, and that the mathematics performance index was at 197 out of 200 in third, fourth, and fifth grades.

With the change in cut points, Lockwood said, the percentage of students scoring at the top two levels decreased across the grades. “Our struggle now,” he said, “is to address that problem while continuing to teach to the standards rather than the test.”

Another challenge, he said, is that students with disabilities continue to score at levels 1 and 2 at a higher rate than other students.

Unique to Guilderland Elementary is the increase in enrollment to 546 students this year, up from 506 three years ago. The population of English language learners has increased from 5 to 8 percent.

The school is putting an emphasis on student attendance, communicating regularly with families. “We can’t help students if they’re not in school,” said Lockwood.

Guilderland Elementary is also developing a reading support program for English language learners and scheduling to foster co-teaching.

Alicia Rizzo, the principal at Lynnwood Elementary, presented results from her school: 61 percent of third-graders, 77 percent of fourth-graders, and 66 percent of fifth-graders were proficient in English, according to test scores, while, in math, 62 percent of third-graders, 79 percent of fourth-graders, and 65 percent of fifth-graders were proficient.

In science, 97 percent of fourth-graders were proficient, which Rizzo listed as a success.

She also counted as successes that 79 percent of students were proficient in math and 77 percent in English.

“We at Lynnwood face some unique challenges,” said Rizzo, alluding to the fact that Lynnwood educates students with disabilities from throughout the district. “We did not make adequate yearly progress for 2009-10 special needs.”

The second challenge she listed was to increase the number of fifth-graders who score at the top level in English. Although three-quarters of Lynnwood fifth-graders were proficient in English, only 9 percent were at Level 4.

The language arts staff has reviewed “benchmark assessment information” Rizzo said, and is making plans for instruction. Also, two teams of teachers worked with Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. “to investigate opportunities to develop additional instructional strategies.” Rizzo said this was “giving teachers more tools in their toolbox.”

Finally, the Lynnwood Building Cabinet is working “to develop opportunities for the staff to examine and assess” elements of the school’s literacy program.

Finally, Principal Beth Bini presented test data from Westmere Elementary: 69 percent of third-graders, 72 percent of fourth-graders, and 78 percent of fifth-graders were proficient in English while 69 percent of third-graders, 87 percent of  fourth-graders, and 82 percent of fifth-graders were proficient in Math.

Ninety-eight percent of Westmere fourth-graders were proficient in science.

In spite of the new cut scores, Bini said, citing her school’s successes, the number of students earning a  Level 4 in English increased. Also, the math performance index was 196 out of 200.

Naming challenges, she said that students with disabilities scored more often at levels 1 and 2. Also, due to the changes in state cut points, the percentage of students at levels 3 or 4 decreased in math and English across all grade levels. Finally, the percentage of students learning English as a second language has increased over the past three years from 3 to 5 percent.

Beginning this year, Westmere has encouraged co-teaching for clustered classrooms with scheduling that allows for collaboration. There is increased emphasis on student attendance through regular communication with families. And attention is being paid to the unique needs of students learning English.

Middle school

Demographics at the middle school have remained virtually the same over the past three years, said Principal Mary Summermatter. “We remain relatively flat except for a small increase in the number of students labeled economically disadvantaged,” she said.

Overall in the district, 4 percent of students are eligible for a free lunch and another 2 percent are eligible for a reduced-price lunch.

The enrollment at Farnsworth Middle School, while previously decreasing, has stabilized since the 2008-09 school year.

Successes highlighted by Summermatter included all grades scoring above the state average in math and English, while eighth-graders scored above the average in science. Also, all eighth-graders passed the foreign language proficiency.

Challenges at Farnsworth include mitigating the changes in the cut scores.

Also, said Summermatter “of great concern to us” is that students with disabilities are close to not meeting requirements for adequate yearly progress.

Finally, students identified as economically disadvantaged have decreased math scores.

The school will continue to analyze test data to identify areas of deficiency, especially for students who have disabilities or who come from poor families.

Literacy across the curriculum will be a focus. Strategies will be developed to help students who scored at levels 1 or 2 in math. Common formative assessments, like the ones for math, will be developed for English and social studies.

Finally, math and English curricula will be revised to meet the new Common Core Standards.

High school

Guilderland High School has made notable improvement in its overall graduation rate, increasing it from 90 to 92 percent, said Michael Piscitelli, the administrator for math, science, and technology. He explained that this figure is arrived at by looking at the students who entered the high school in 2006 and seeing what occurred to that group over four years. (See related story.)

Also, Piscitelli said, 95 percent of students scored at or above Level 3 in English and math, and there is a strong performance on Regents exams for foreign languages.

Challenges include closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities — both in terms of their test performance and their graduation rate.

“We have to focus on intervention,” said Piscitelli.

Curriculum has to be modified to align with the new learning standards, and there has to be early intervention for struggling students, he said.

Patricia Hansbury-Zuendt, the administrator for English, reading, and social studies, went over the high school’s learning targets, most of which applied to students with disabilities.

 There has to be “strategic planning” for the type of diploma they will earn, she said. The role of the Administrators-Counselors Team will be refined, stressing early interventions for attendance, course failures, and academic struggles. Also, procedures will be developed “for verification of cohort accuracy,” said Hansbury-Zuendt. A cohort describes a group of students that entered the school at one time and travels through as a group until graduation.

“Making sure we can find all of our kids is trickier than it sounds,” she said.

Learning workshops on literacy are team taught by a reading teacher and special-education teacher. Collaborative teaching models will be used and special education learning workshop support will be looped.

Finally, there will be curriculum and program changes. Courses in Algebra II and trigonometry will be restructured with more time for review. Special-education teachers will be trained for Integrated Algebra support.

Work is also being done on English, reading, and special education for core level students. Meetings last summer and throughout the year identified common areas for focus, said Hansbury-Zuendt.

When intervention is needed to help struggling students, the focus is on building foundational skills and prevention. “Revise, restructure, revisit,” said Hansbury-Zuent so students can meet or exceed standards.

Singleton concluded that continuing to support students who are learning English and students with disabilities is “always at the top of our list.” He called it “a moral imperative…that goes well beyond test scores.”

He also reiterated the new mandates that must be met, noting the changes are coming at a time when revenues are declining. This, said Singleton, will force the district to prioritize.

“We do remain truly optimistic,” he concluded, viewing the challenges as an “opportunity for true and meaningful innovations.”

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