In Central Bucks, a battle over a restructured middle-school day

in the Central Bucks district protested the proposed changes in Doylestown on March 27. BILL REED / Staff
in the Central Bucks district protested the proposed changes in Doylestown on March 27. BILL REED / Staff (Students and parents)
Posted: April 08, 2012

Five thousand students are in the middle of an educational tug-of-war in one of the largest and most affluent school districts in Pennsylvania.

More is more, administrators and school board members say. An additional 10 minutes a day spent on each core subject, such as math, science and social studies, will help middle-school students learn better, they insist.

More is less, parents and teachers counter. Students will lose one period a day of art, music, gym, and other "special" classes.

The Central Bucks School District, based in Doylestown, plans to start the new scheduling and curriculum in the fall.

Not so fast, plead parents and teachers. Why fix a system that they think isn't broken?

"A major culture change in our middle schools is being rushed through without the participation of some of the major stakeholders in the district - parents, students, and staff," says Beth Darcy, a parent and founding member of Central Bucks Engage, a community group that opposes the move. "There's something very fishy about it."

Nearly 250 of the 340 teachers at the five middle schools have opposed the moves, saying they were shut out of the process.

Parents have set up a website, packed board meetings, staged a rally, written letters to Harrisburg. and placed an ad in a newspaper in an effort to persuade board members to table the changes.

"If you're teaching the same material in 10 more minutes, you're wasting my child's time and my money," John O'Connor said at the March 27 school board meeting.

"I appreciate the passion," the board's president, Paul Faulkner, responded after nearly an hour of challenges and criticism. "We could have done a better job" informing the community about the changes.

Still, he said, "this is a done deal."

Maybe.

The state has approved the district's plan to alter its middle-school schedule from seven periods of 46 minutes to six periods of 56 minutes.

But the department's Bureau of Teaching and Learning will investigate any possible "deficiency in learning," said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education. The review was prompted by about 80 letters and by petitions bearing about 800 signatures from the community.

That review will include whether teachers of core subjects are qualified for instruction of computer skills, Eller said. The district plans to eliminate computer classes and integrate the skills into the core classes.

Parents say the administration has failed to provide statistics and studies showing that longer classes improve learning, or to name districts that use such curriculum and scheduling.

"We even filed a Right-to-Know request for research that was presented during the development of the plan, and we were told there are no records available," said Karen Smith, another founding member of Central Bucks Engage. "We assume that means no research was presented."

Superintendent N. Robert Laws, who is retiring at the end of the school year, and Nancy Silvious, assistant superintendent for secondary education, were unavailable for interviews, the district's spokesperson said.

Students' test scores are among the best in the state, so performance can't be the reason for changing a system that works, the parents say.

"Test scores are not declining," Faulkner said. "Something doesn't have to be broken to be better."

That leaves the parents with one conclusion: The changes are about saving money on teachers' salaries.

"It has to be economically driven," Darcy said.

The district will save about $400,000 by laying off eight computer science teachers whose classes will be eliminated, business administrator David Matyas said.

Those are the only savings from the curriculum changes, he said. He and Faulkner denied that the new curriculum was designed to shore up next year's budget, which will require an expected 1.7 percent tax increase.

But the parents are skeptical, figuring that more layoffs will follow to help offset declining revenue.

"They're cutting the number of elective periods in half, so they'll only need half those teachers," Darcy said.

The school board rejected a plan to lay off from 35 to 40 teachers, Central Bucks Education Association president Keith Sinn wrote last week in an e-mail to members.

As for the educational pros and cons of the curriculum changes, which the school board approved unanimously in February with little notice, "there is a give and take," Faulkner said. "Something had to give."

The additional time for core subjects, which also include English, reading, and world languages, will total 150 hours a year. "That's pretty significant," he said.

That's time taken from electives such as art, music, family and consumer science, gym and health, plus classes for gifted students, the parents say.

Students will take each of those subjects at least once in seventh, eighth, or ninth grade. That's not the same as taking the subjects each year, the parents say.

Educators outside the district differ on the benefits of longer core classes at the expense of the arts and gym.

Longer class periods may not be better because of adolescents' short attention spans, said Leonard Ference, executive director of the Pennsylvania Middle School Association.

And middle school is the last time for students to experience the elective subjects before they get into their career paths in high school, he said Monday.

"I hate to see the applied and fine arts begin to be cut," Ference said. "You never know whether you'll like art or music until you try it."

Dave Brown, a professor of adolescent development at West Chester University, said longer core classes "are really good for the way brains work, to understand and learn something."

Based on research at middle schools and high schools across the country, "each time classes were elongated, teaching got considerably better, and students liked them better as well," Brown said.

The researcher, national consultant, and author said there were no studies determining the optimal time for middle-school classes. "But when classes were extended beyond 37 to 42 minutes, it opened up a whole new world of information for teachers."

With the extra time, science teachers can offer more experiments and complete them in one session, Brown said. Math teachers can present concepts and principles and make sure the students understand and can apply them. And English teachers can have students do more writing in class.

"Writing makes a big difference in literary skills," he said.

Longer classes allow more one-on-one instruction for students of all abilities in a class, he added.


Contact Bill Reed at 215-801-2964 or wreed@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @breedbucks. Read

his blog, "BucksInq," at www.philly.com/bucksinq.

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