Homework, AP Courses, Strategic Plan Among Forum Topics
BOE annual forum draws parents who want something done soon with homework, AP qualifying exams.
The hot topics at Sunday’s School Board Forum were homework, AP qualifying exams and the upcoming strategic plan.
While the first 30 or 45 minutes were taken up with the overview for the process for the strategic plan, some parents were disappointed it was not the kick-off of the plan but just an overview, despite months of discussion about kicking off a strategic plan in 2012.
Because the plan could take up to a year before being implemented, parents were adamant that the board address issues of homework, moving back middle and high school start times and letting more kids into Advanced Placement courses before the plan is implemented.
Even some board members said the slow pace of the strategic planning process would lead putting off dealing with tough issues that must be dealt with.
“I’m concerned that it may be used as a stalling tactic on issues such as later start times for the middle school and high school or AP qualifying tests for a year or longer,” said Board Member Regina Truitt.
Dr. Judith Ferguson the school’s hired strategic planning consultant and a former schools superintendent said working on a plan doesn’t preclude the school board from making decisions along the way, especially after they have the results of surveys that will tell them what the community wants.
“I wouldn’t do away with the AP qualifying exams in the next six months but you could make scheduling changes,” she said.
The point of a strategic plan is to give the board, administration and school community a way to plan an idealized version of the schools system they want 10 years from now, and will include a vision, a mission statement and the district’s core values.
The strategic planning process is designed to get the community, the board, the teachers and the administration all on the same page with regard to the mission and the vision for the school district.
Then all decisions after that should answer the question of whether they are in keeping with district’s mission.
“We really need data and to understand what the community wants from the district,” said Board Member Jean Pasternak, who added that the homework issue is important because the district needs to look at balance when it comes to students. “We aren’t there yet. We aren’t even close. Everyone from the board to the administrators and teachers and the community has to buy into this or it’s going to be a waste of money and a lot of people’s time.”
Ferguson said the long part of the strategic plan is getting the data, through surveys, and then getting a consensus among the people participating in the process – but that’s the most important piece.
“If you want me to write the plan for you I could do it in about 10 minutes, but it would be my ideas and my plan and it wouldn’t have the community buy-in,” said Ferguson, who was hired for $9,500 to act as a strategic planning consultant.
Many parents in attendance were annoyed because the issues of homework and completely opening up the AP classes have been discussed for a long time and about 10 months ago, MSPEC presented the board with a study and survey of parents regarding the homework issue.
But nothing ever came of it.
Parents repeatedly said they want the board to set some policy as it pertains to how much homework children at different grade levels should have, but also on letting more students take AP classes, but they want the policies based on research and expertise not on board member opinions.
One mom asked the school board to “stop the madness” when it comes to homework, saying that Millburn has beautiful parks and yards, but no one is playing them because they start their homework right after school and work until 11 p.m. or later, often working on school related things more hours a day than their parents work in their full time jobs.
“We’re heartsick watching them go through this. And we’re sick of it,” the mom said to a loud round of applause.
Board member Lise Chapman said that while she understands the concerns, sometimes students are not managing their time well and that keeps them up later than tey need to be, doing homework.
When it comes to AP qualifying exams, some board members felt that the tests themselves cause more stress but others felt the exams offered and "out" and some relief to the parental and peer pressure to take as many AP courses as possible.
"Not getting into a class can be a big relief," said Board member Rona Wenik, who heads up the board’s programming committee. Additionally, she said, not struggling or dropping out is also a good thing.
Additionally, she said, AP coursework is rigorous and requires more homework, not less, so people need to take that into consideration in the two discussions.
Board members Waters and Eric Siegel and Superintendent Dr. James Crisfield reminded the audience that Millburn was recognized nationally for having offered AP courses to more students and yet maintaining exceptional results. However, the dropout rate for AP classes has increased since they opened it up to more students.
“Our results in AP classes for the most part are pretty spectacular,” Board Member Jeff Waters said.
MHS Senior Matt Taylor said that was the case when he did not get into to AP Physics. And, as it turned out, it was a good thing he didn’t, he said, because accelerated physics was hard enough.
Describing himself as an average student with some AP classes through the years, Taylor also said that he did not feel he had had too much homework through the years.
Although it was only mentioned in passing, one idea that School Board president Michael Birnberg calls a Six Plus One Initiative could help with the homework issue. In that plan, he has said, high school students would take six classes instead of seven from the beginning of school until the AP Tests in the spring. Then the last month or so of school, they would take one course all day or have an internship or work if they wanted to.
This idea, he thinks, would solve some of the problems students have with stress and homework, because there would be fewer classes.
The idea of a later start time for middle and high school students only came up briefly as well, despite more than 200 students and parents from Millburn township signing a national petition seeking congress to mandate later start times.
Dr. Christine Burton, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, will lead the strategic planning process and told the audience that the kick-off will be in early March. So far, 60 people have signed up to help with the process, which is very important, she said.
“We need to define the problem before we can identify action steps,” she said.
The conversation is just beginning and will continue for some time to come.