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District reimagines middle school

District 196 secondary education director Mark Parr presents plans for a new middle school model at a special meeting for parents Dec. 2. The plan will be presented to the school board Dec. 13.

Independent School District 196 introduced parents to a revamped model for middle-level education at a special meeting Dec. 2.

The new schedule, developed in a process that took much of the past year, includes a six-period school day, down from the current eight; new opportunities to help students who are struggling and challenge those who are advanced; and new opportunities for students to choose their classes.

The reduction in the number of periods each day will mean longer classes -- about 54 minutes instead of 41 -- and about 30 percent more time in core classes such as math, science and English.

Those are the areas tested on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, a test on which middle school students both locally and statewide have struggled in recent years.

"That's kind of the bottom line is, we felt that in order for us to significantly help with achievement we wanted to create more opportunity for kids to be in core classes longer," said secondary education director Mark Parr, one of the facilitators of the group that developed the new structure.

The new schedule will preserve communication classes as a requirement but will open up room for student choice -- a priority identified in a parent survey that drew more than 1,000 responses -- by turning Family and Consumer Science and technical education classes into electives.

Students will get more flexibility in their schedule as they progress from sixth to eighth grade.

The new schedule also adds 15 minutes at the start of the day for teachers in each curriculum area to meet and talk about what is working for them and where they are struggling.

Reactions to proposal were mixed in discussion sessions that followed the presentation. Some parents questioned decisions that were made. They argued that FACS and tech ed classes teach students valuable skills and should be required rather than communication classes.

District 196 is alone among Twin Cities districts in requiring communications classes, and Rosemount Middle School principal Mary Thompson said there is a value in the classes. District 196 has long had successful speech and debate programs.

Others praised the new schedule. But many of the comments seemed like the result of parents trying to wrap their heads around a system that looks very different than what they are used to. How, they wondered, can schools find time to offer both remediation and and enrichment to students?

Many of the proposed changes are already in place, though, either at a District 196 school or at one of the schools the group studied.

The middle school review committee, which visited a number of Twin Cities school districts and held a panel discussion with representatives from four of the schools it considered most successful, made changes primarily to address test scores that typically slump at the middle level but also with an eye toward a budget that will be stretched thin as the district contemplates a second consecutive year of cuts in the tens of millions.

The schedule change as it was presented Monday means the district will need 26 fewer teachers. Parr said the new schedule will save the district $1.78 million.

Parr called the new structure "the best model we could (design) without increasing costs." But Thompson, who served on the review committee, said the structure of the new school day was in place before budget became a serious concern.

"I would say that I'm really pleased with what the task force came up with," Thompson said. "If you look at the model, there's some things that maybe need little adjustments here and there based on the input we received from parents and staff. But overall I think it's going to be an excellent model to help students achieve at their highest level."

Thompson expressed disappointment, though, at the idea of losing teachers.

"There's a lot of great people here that are pretty passionate about what they do. Not just at Rosemount, but at the whole district," Thompson said. "They're probably not going to have a job next year or won't be able to teach at the school they want."

Job losses will not all come at the middle level. Because of seniority rules, some middle school teachers will move to different buildings.

Even if it is approved, the plan will be a work in progress. The basic structure of the day would change for the 2011-12 school year, but other changes will be phased in over three to five years.

"It will be an evolving thing," Thompson said. "It's not going to be all set and done the way it is next year.... This is a paradigm shift."

This is the first comprehensive review of the district's middle school program since the 1970s.

The middle school committee was scheduled to meet Dec. 9 to review comments from last week's meetings and put together a final presentation to bring to the school board Dec. 13.