World Cafes spark discussion about intermediate school plans

Thursday, April 14, 2011 | 6:12 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Turnout did not quite meet expectations at three meetings held this month to discuss the transition to intermediate schools in Columbia.

But the attendance at these meetings, called World Cafes, does not have negative implications for the planning process, said Kim Presko, co-chair of the Intermediate Steering Committee.

"This was our opportunity to get people's feedback on what we have been doing for the last year and a half," she said. "I think people are pretty much satisfied with our school system and what we're doing here, or they're just really busy."

With the opening of Muriel Williams Battle High School in 2013, ninth-graders will be shifted to Columbia's three high schools. Sixth- through eighth-graders will be taught in intermediate schools. At present, the city has three middle schools and three junior high schools.

This complicated game of musical chairs will alter programming for students. The meetings were intended to gather feedback from parents and community members about the future sixth- through eighth-graders.

Around 50 participants came to Tuesday's Cafe at Mill Creek Elementary School, and about 30 attended the final meeting at Derby Ridge Elementary School on Wednesday. Last week, the district held a meeting at Paxton Keeley Elementary School where attendance was smaller.

Chief Academic Officer Sally Beth Lyon said she was pleased with Tuesday's turnout. It drew parents with students in middle school and those with younger children still in elementary school. She added that this diversity brought a nice mix of current experience from one group of parents and hope for the future programs from another.

Darlene Grant, committee member and assistant principal at Smithton Middle School, led a discussion about parent and community involvement at the meeting. She said she was excited about the suggestions, such as having more parent days and helping enrich relationships between parents and children.

Lyon agreed that sound ideas for parent involvement emerged from the discussion.

"It doesn't always have to be showing up with cupcakes at the class party," she said.

Stephanie Stephens, a mother of two students in the district, said Wednesday at Derby Ridge that parental involvement in the schools needs to be prioritized.

"Sometimes they have to miss a baseball practice so you can go meet the teacher and learn about grades," she said. "Baseball will only get them so far. School and grades — that's what they'll be leaning on when they go to college."

Participants came to the meetings not only with suggestions but also with concerns. Stephens said some of her worries subsided when the committee clarified how honors math classes would work in the future.

"I think what made me happiest was that they are not going to double-math you in the core classes," Stephens said. "It's two hours of math. My whole opinion is if (the students) are advanced enough to be in algebra class, they don't need (seventh-grade math)."

If high-achieving students in middle school want to take advanced math, they often take the advanced class during a zero-hour before the school day begins and still have to sit through regular math later during the school day.

The committee is planning to reorganize the core classes so a student in an honors course does not have to waste time in an additional, lower-level class. Similarly, students who need extra help in a particular subject during the day will have a class period to work with a teacher on that subject.

Jeff Galen, who has a son in the district, said on Wednesday that he wants more honors classes to be offered for high-achieving students.

"(I also like) that they are going to have additional resources like helping with reading and writing for kids who need that assistance," he said.

The discussion on curriculum contained an explanation of how a typical day might be split up into different classes. Dana Ferguson, committee member and mathematics coordinator for the district, said students will be separated into teams by grade level and go to class with four teachers who instruct their core classes — mathematics, language arts, science and social studies.

Every year, students will move along together in the same team but will be assigned a new set of four core teachers.

In a new section called an advisory period that will begin each day, students will mix with other grade levels to create small families of support, said committee member and principal of West Junior High School Sandra Logan.

Lyon said the committee will meet in subgroups to add parent and community suggestions to the programming plan before bringing it to the Columbia School Board in June.

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