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UD-3 officials say change is in the air

MIDDLEBURY — Officials in the UD-3 school district on Tuesday gave an update on how they are responding to a petition seeking to boost academic excellence at Middlebury Union High School, and pledged to consider additional changes as curriculum is developed for the 2010-2011 school year.
At issue is a citizens’ petition submitted to the UD-3 school board last year by a group of parents and community members. The petition, signed by more than 400 people, raised concerns about the extent to which students are academically challenged at MUHS.
In particular, the petitioners took issue with student performance in the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) standardized tests, along with complaints about a high school block scheduling system they said does not permit students to take year-long Advanced Placement (AP) classes. The petitioners also lobbied for an educational philosophy that more aggressively encourages students to take the most challenging classes offered; greater opportunities for students to take earth science in eighth grade in order to allow for increased choice of advanced science classes when they reach MUHS; more AP classes; greater computerization of the scheduling process to allow more flexibility; and bringing curriculum up to College Board Subject Test standards.
Around 10 of the petition supporters turned out at Tuesday’s UD-3 meeting to reiterate their concerns and listen to district officials’ responses.
“I feel there is a momentum that has been started and I would like to see it keep going in that direction,” parent Kelley Higgins said of the school improvement efforts.
That said, Higgins said she remains concerned about such issues as not having AP English courses available to students in grades 9, 10 and 11; the absence of a “weighted” grade point average system that would better account for those taking more challenging courses; and the “block scheduling system” that opponents argue prevents students from taking as many courses as they’d like.
Resident Tawnya Kiernan stressed the importance of offering more AP classes. She said her ability to take an AP biology class in high school enabled her to hit the ground running when she later enrolled at the University of Vermont.
“(AP courses) open more doors than you realize, down the road,” Kiernan said. “It’s so much more than what’s on their transcript.”
MUHS Principal Bill Lawson described steps that have been put in place, or are in the offing, to address some of the petitioners’ concerns.
He said MUHS staff does use computer technology in preparing its course schedule. Lawson added that since the advent of block scheduling at MUHS, “the number of AP courses has grown substantially and the number of students taking AP courses has grown substantially.”
Lawson added that school administrators are examining the earth science curriculum in grades 6 through 9 to improve the program.
“We will be looking this summer to modifying that curriculum … with the idea of making it more rigorous for students,” Lawson said.
Lawson offered to make himself available for regular parent-administrator meetings to discuss school improvements.
“The petition identified some areas of concern that, up to this year, we hadn’t heard,” Lawson said. “It has helped us to start thinking about addressing these things.”
Although the dialog at the meeting was civil, it was clear after the meeting that at least some of the petitioners were not completely satisfied.
Michele Hernandez, a Weybridge parent and expert on college admissions, said in an email exchange on Wednesday morning that she is still looking for UD-3 to offer “a more rigorous curriculum, one that aligns better with College Board Subject tests and offers AP classes for more students so that students have the widest possible choice when they apply to colleges.
Hernandez, who was at Tuesday’s meeting but did not speak publicly, was not impressed by MUHS administrators.
“I think it was clear to all who were present that there was a definite disconnect between the administration and the community regarding concerns about academic excellence and the current reality at the high school,” she said in the email. “We would hope the administration shares the same goal as the community — among them that MUHS be ranked among top public high schools in the U.S.”
Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Lee Sease said he agreed with the petitioners’ aim to see student test scores improve. But he stressed his belief that it is the public education system’s primary goal to get students well-prepared for life after high school.
“A student leaving school not prepared for life after graduation is both a human and social tragedy,” Sease wrote in a memo to the UD-3 board. “We need to reduce the number of unprepared students to the lowest level possible.”
Sease and other district administrators are crafting a policy to better measure student progress and performance.
School officials promised to collect more data and ideas on responding to the concerns expressed in the petition.
“It is going to be a complex issue, but it is a partnership,” said UD-3 board Chairman Tom Beyer.

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