By Christina Hernandez, Managing Editor
Two local residents are leading an organization that supports the concept of leveling, or the grouping of students in classes based on perceived academic ability, in South Orange-Maplewood schools.
John Davenport and Donna Smith co-chair the South Orange-Maplewood Group for Objective Academic Leveling (G.O.A.L), which was assembled a couple weeks ago to ensure that school officials “keep their promises that combined classes are kept at a Level 4 rigor,” said Davenport in a phone interview last week.
“We believe some leveling is needed in order to provide sufficient challenge for the most advanced students in given subjects,” he said. “We are not committed to any specific proposal. We want (school officials) exploring creative alternatives to make it possible to raise the level of challenge for all students.”
They launched a website, som-goal.com, weeks after school officials voted last month to move Level 3 students to Level 4 in seventh-grade English, social studies and science at South Orange and Maplewood middle schools, and when Davenport received roughly 260 signatures in a petition to support leveling. The petition was later submitted to the school board.
“We had hundreds of people e-mailing us — a lot of interested people were trying to make sure that their side was represented and heard,” said Davenport. “This came from a sentiment of people who supported the petition and who thought we shouldn’t stop. They thought that we needed to organize further.”
Davenport said G.O.A.L currently has more than 60 members, and is an extension of a pro-leveling group organized roughly eight years ago called Levels Can Work.
He added that he would like to see group membership increase to 300 by the fall. Currently, the new group has a Steering Committee of 14 people that helps from drafting editorials and press releases to planing events or meetings.
“This is a group that is going to grow and be active in future board campaigns,” he said.
At the Board of Education meeting on Aug. 16, Davenport introduced the new group to the public before school officials presented an evaluation system to measure deleveling in the seventh grade. They also presented an implementation schedule. The components administrators will evaluate to measure the outcomes of deleveling seventh grade is the NJASK scores, final grades and exams, level recommendations from teachers and student work samples.
School officials addressed some concerns with the evaluation process, but didn’t demand any answers right away from administrators.
“I think we are doing great in professional development,” said board member Lynne Crawford, “but I would like to know if differentiated instruction is being done (in the classroom.)”
Crawford asked Rosetta Wilson, assistant superintendent of curriculum, who gave the presentation, on how administrators will monitor if such instruction is being performed successfully, and if materials for differentiated instruction are being used.
“We need evidence,” she said.
Wilson responded that district officials are “expecting more consistency” when it comes to professional development, since many of the workshops are being done in-house.
Board member Richard Laine suggested that sixth grade, which was deleveled roughly seven years ago, should be looked at closely to measure its success.
He was the only board member to mention G.O.A.L while speaking on how the district should find a way to bring all students to a proficient level and challenge them.
Meanwhile, in a phone interview on Tuesday, Smith said, “I don’t believe that simply combining Level 3 and 4 is the solution to the achievement gap. I think there are problems the way levels are administered, and I think revamping them is a good idea.”
“We feel it’s radical,” Davenport said on the task force’s proposal to delevel certain seventh-grade subjects, “because it makes no plan whatsoever for honors classes and a gifted and talented program.”
Smith recommends the district go back to “contracting up,” which is where a student has the choice to opt into a higher level, get evaluated, and if they don’t make the cut, they bump down a level. She also said that no additional changes to delevel other grades should be made until the current deleveled grades are evaluated.
Both Davenport and Smith had a say on the local chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People seeking a lawsuit on the district because of “racial segregation” due to leveling in South Orange-Maplewood schools.
The local chapter awaits to hear from its national office on whether to pursue legal action or not.
“I think it’s an unfortunate action,” says Smith. “The school district is obviously working to make changes to the problems that exist to our lower-level classes. NAACP insist on deleveling every grade in the high school. I thought it was just unfortunate. We need to revamp the (leveling) program to work for every student. A lawsuit would be detrimental to the district.”