Although Superintendent Dr. Richard D’Agostino and Committee member Karen Bacchus suggested alternatives to the Accelerated Learning Activities Program (ALAP), parents made a passionate plea for the reinstatement of the program Tuesday night.
Bacchus, who abstained in the two-to-two vote resulting in the elimination of the program, presented her idea for the Creative Enrichment Program.
“As many people have commented in the last month, I did vote not to continue ALAP because I think it has some deficits, and I think we can do better,” said Bacchus.
Her vision is for a new after-school enrichment program for all elementary students in grades 4 through 6 who wish to participate. Each of the 16 elementary schools would offer the program once a week for two hours, one and a half hours for the children and a half hour for teacher planning and preparation. Bacchus said for this year she sees the program starting in January, but being a 30-week program in the future.
“The curriculum is not written, but I see it as very broad. I see it as cultures of the world to include the literature of that time if the kids can understand it, the history, philosophy, the music, musical instruments, food, etc. for the kids to have as much tactile, hands-on as well as creative academics,” said Bacchus, who explained that she is looking at various curriculums.
She continued to explain her vision, which she has briefly discussed with D’Agostino, Chairwoman Beth Furtado, Elementary Director Robert Bushell and legal counsel, would be a three-phase program with a different curriculum for each grade so a student would never repeat the program.
Bacchus placed the cost of starting the program for January at around $75,000 and believes the funds can be taken from substitute salaries and the professional development fund. Bacchus said teachers would work for the program and be paid a $42 per hour tutoring stipend for their time.
“If you went 30 weeks, it’s less than $100,000,” said Bacchus.
To pay two teachers for two hours a week for 30 weeks at 16 elementary schools, the cost would be $80,640 in tutoring stipends. Bacchus also said she could see the program operating every other week if necessary.
“This would be a creative venue. It would be things that you can’t do necessarily in the classroom. You don’t have time,” said Bacchus.
She also called into question the claim that children liked being taken out of the classroom for ALAP.
“I talked to a lot of kids who were in ALAP who hated to miss their class when they were in ALAP and vice versa. The kids that were left over in the classroom, a lot of them were labeled as ‘dumb kids’ and they weren’t necessarily dumb,” said Bacchus.
Making improvements to in-class instruction is what D’Agostino suggests. He said that since ALAP was cut from the budget, he met with Bushell and Director of Curriculum Anne Siesel to look at alternatives. The three have also been in contact with Dr. Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, to learn ways education is provided to gifted students. The superintendent said Renzulli is a leader in gifted and talented education and provides support to states and districts.
D’Agostino also said he has spoken with other communities, including Cranston and Coventry, to see how they educate their gifted and talented students. The discovery is that most use differentiated learning, which D’Agostino explained is “a method of teaching students and grouping them in different groups and focusing the instruction on those different groups.” He explained that Westbay Collaborative has individuals experienced in differentiated learning who would be able to deliver professional development to Warwick teachers.
Bacchus also pointed out that the state teacher’s exam includes a portion on differentiated learning.
“Anybody who’s come out in the past few years since they started that should have experience in [differentiated learning],” said Bacchus.
In addition to this process, D’Agostino said after-school programs are being looked at.
“Mr. Bushell is going to make an analysis of the elementary schools to see what they are providing and then we can incorporate into the program at the same time,” said the superintendent, pointing out a number of after-school enrichment programs offered at various elementary schools including chess club, dance, Spanish Club and even Latin Club.
Siesel addressed Bacchus’ Creative Enrichment Program and said many of the curriculums she has researched would be in the same vein.
“So there are already curriculums out there we can certainly explore and we would like to explore either as an after-school experience or possibly something that some children can do in addition to what they are doing in the regular classroom,” said Siesel.
D’Agostino asked for time to look at other communities and recommendations from UConn as to how programs are funded and for how long.
“With that information, we can make a recommendation this is realistic, that we can afford and that is beneficial to all of the students you talk about,” said D’Agostino.
After the plans were announced and explained, committee member Eugene Nadeau spoke up on behalf of the ALAP students.
“I don’t have a problem with this kind of an idea to benefit students, but how in the name of God are we advancing the education when we vote two-to-two to eliminate the ALAP program. That’s a disgrace,” said Nadeau. “We must restore ALAP. We must restore ALAP.”
As Nadeau finished his remarks, the small audience cheered and applauded, with pleas to restore ALAP continuing during public comment.
Toll Gate High School English teacher Darlene Netcoh stood up and explained that “grouping” was eliminated at the high school level. She has also attended a number of workshops on differentiated learning and said the higher performing group is often just given more work.
“Well, put yourself in that position. Because you get to finish the work and you’re working at a higher pace and a higher level, the response is just to give you more work,” said Netcoh. “Does that make sense? I don’t think so because whose going to want to do that? Whose going to want to work to their ability if that just means you have more work to do?”
“People move here because of these programs that we have here and people will leave if we don’t have them,” said Patrick Maloney Jr., adding that the committee should keep track of ALAP students and see how many leave the district.
He later spoke of his belief that eliminating ALAP is not a budgetary issue, but the administration is attempting to slow the learning of the highest performing students in the hope of closing the educational gap between the highest and lowest performing students. Maloney said Warwick Schools have been warned about closing the gap for two years, yet it is only increasing.
“They would be forced to let go of teachers, let go of administrators – exactly what happened in Central Falls,” said Maloney.
Additional ALAP parents argued to restore the program.
“My kids have been motivated by being with other children, other highly motivated, highly skilled, highly intelligent children,” said Jim Fraser.
Kathleen Ogni said after-school enrichment for all students is a great thing, but it is not a replacement for ALAP, which challenged her child with higher thinking and creative problem solving.
“I think we should enrich all of the kids as much as we can, but we’re talking about educating our kids during the school day, their normal part of education,” said Ogni.
“The kids that need help get the tutors and student teachers help them. Why can’t we do that on the other side of the spectrum for the people that don’t need help but need encouragement,” said Steve Anderson.
“You have many children in this city that have to go to after-school care. They can’t attend after-school programs. So you are excluding children,” said Pam Dillon, who added that in the classroom her two gifted children are already “teaching” other students or spend most of the class reading their own books. She also questioned the cost of the program and the addition cost of administrators to be in the building as supervisors.
“If you’re going to spend money for something like that, you might as well spend it on the ALAP program,” said Dillon.
Janine Nazareth made one of the evening’s most defiant statements as a parent of a gifted child and a special needs child.
“Inclusion works on both ends of the spectrum,” said Nazareth. “You can’t say a student with special needs has to be included unless there’s a special reason but then look at the gifted child and say, ‘No, it’s OK. They can be in that classroom.’”
Nazareth also pointed out that her gifted daughter read two Harry Potter books in the last month of school during her class time because she finished her work. She has also already finished her 200 math problems and read a 361-page book meant for sixth and seventh graders. “How are you going to keep her active in school?”
While the fate of the ALAP program or proposed replacements still appears to be up in the air with two weeks until the start of school, the ALAP PTA will hold a meeting Monday night at 6 at the Warwick Library to discuss future plans. School Committee members and administrators are invited to attend. There is also talk of a special School Committee meeting occurring, but no date has been set.