The South Burlington School Board met on May 1 to a full house. Nearly four dozen parents attended, concerned about a possible upcoming change to the teaching model at South Burlington’s three public elementary schools, Orchard, Rick Marcotte Central and Chamberlin. The proposed change would bring specialization to the schools, training certain teachers to focus primarily on math or literacy, which would have the children learning from other adults besides their main classroom teacher.

A few days before April break, an email from “Concerned Orchard Teachers” was circulated among parents urging them to attend the May 1 school board meeting “en masse” to speak out against the plan. The email, which called the teaching model “departmentalization,” included various statistics highlighting the negative aspects of departmentalization, as well as comparisons between Orchard School and Williamstown Elementary, a Vermont school currently using the specialization model. They noted that Orchard was ranked second in the 2019 Best Elementary Schools in Vermont list from the Niche website, while Williamstown is ranked 130. Rick Marcotte and Chamberlin are ranked 12 and 15, respectively.

The email also claimed that the elementary school teachers were not included in the decision-making process and that most of them do not support the proposed model.

“Teachers are brokenhearted and devastated and feel as though their voices do not matter,” the email read. “Your teachers have been silenced, but you can make your voices heard loud and clear.”

In response, Superintendent David Young sent a communication to the school board alerting them to the situation.

“Starting next year, we will expand our practice of having elementary teachers specialize in math or literacy so that we can provide content-specific professional development to help them develop deeper expertise in order to help re-teach students,” Young wrote in the memo. “This means that teachers will have more focused professional development and fewer subjects to prepare for as well. It’s important to note that specialization is different than ‘departmentalization.’ We will not be creating departments like the middle and high school levels; we’ll just be allowing teachers to have a singular focus so they can go deep in content-specific professional development.”

In the memo, Young informed the board of the email that was being circulated, adding that that the information was “inaccurate and inflammatory.” He included possible questions that could come up, once again stressing that “while team structures will change a little, we will not be creating departments at the elementary school.”

At the school board meeting, Young explained the plan and his reasoning for implementation. He acknowledged that South Burlington schools are performing far above the average in Vermont, however, he worries about the kids who are falling behind. For example, he expressed pride that over 60 percent of fourth-graders are excelling in math, but he worries about the 40 percent who aren’t meeting the standards. In short, he feels the district can do better for their students and that specialization could be the answer to bridging the achievement gap.

Young then invited first the board to ask their questions, followed by the public.

“Where is the data or the study or the background information that says specialization is the way to go?” board member Bridget Burkehardt asked.

Other board members also requested research articles on the topic.

More than a dozen parents had a chance to voice their concerns as well, from the tight timeline to the lack of research to the impact that specialization might have on the social and emotional support children receive from their teacher.

“It is May and that’s very little time for teachers to prepare, get appropriate training and be ready to take on a new model in August,” said Rick Marcotte Central parent Erin Sutherland. 

Other parents worried about their small children not being able to make a strong connection with multiple instructors the way they can with a single teacher. In the superintendent’s question and answer portion of the memo, he addressed the topic: “With these changes, students will develop strong relationships with a few teachers each year instead of just one. Our teachers pride themselves on getting to know each student as a learner and this will not change.”

A few attendees offered alternative plans for rolling out the model, like starting with just the fifth grade students and assessing the results before trickling down to the younger students.

A separate item on parents’ minds was the way events unfolded, with teachers feeling a need to reach out to parents for help. Many wondered why they are only hearing about the proposed change now, just months away from the new school year starting.

“I would just like to be informed and, more importantly, for the teachers to be able to have input because they are the people that are in the trenches with our kids every day,” said Orchard parent Laura Smith. “They have to be on board or this is going to be very challenging for everybody.”

Due to time constraints, Young opted to only hear questions at this time so he can digest them and focus on resolve. He hopes to provide answers and more detailed information to the community within the next few weeks. A separate meeting for parents was discussed but not confirmed.

“I want to make sure that I’m paying attention to all of the voices, all of the questions,” he told the crowd of parents. In a separate statement to The Other Paper, he said, “The primary educators of our children are the parents and guardians. We all need to be on the same page.”

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