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Class system upsets Fredonia parents

OBSERVER Photo by M.J. Stafford Scott Ferguson speaks during the Fredonia Board of Education meeting Thursday. Ferguson read a letter from a group of middle school parents concerned that the school has separated students into classes according to academic achievement levels.

Concerned middle school parents packed the Fredonia Board of Education meeting this week, worried that changes to student scheduling include separating high-achieving students into their own classes.

The separation of students by academic ability is called tracking, and the system came under heavy criticism from the parents, including in a letter signed by a group of them and read at Thursday’s meeting by Scott Ferguson.

“In essence, students … and their parents began the school year realizing they were ranked and tracked together according to perceptions of their ability level,” Ferguson read from the letter. “We strongly oppose the unilateral tracking across academic discipline and we write in order to share our concerns about the system, objections about how it was rolled out this year, and finally request a response and action from the school district.”

The letter states that another document, sent to middle school parents over the summer about changes at the school, did not discuss the change. “After multiple separate conversations that many of us had with principal (Paula) Troutman to understand this change,”

Ferguson continued reading, “we have learned that math performance is used as the predominant criteria in various tracks, along with grades and teacher recommendations, and that students are ranked and scheduled together across the board.

“The approach of ability tracking has long been discredited for being ineffective … as well as unethical for multiple reasons. Simply put, it’s outdated.”

The letter goes on to claim that research shows students tabbed as “lower-achieving” can be negatively impacted in the long term. It concludes with a request for a response and a plan of action from the school district on six points, including reassessment of the system, enhanced flexibility for scheduling among students and better communication with parents.

“We feel strongly enough about this we will address these concerns at the state level, if possible,” the parents state in the letter, adding that they want to see the district’s plan in place by December.

The letter was not included in the set of documents related to meeting agenda items that the district puts on its website. Former Middle School Principal Andy Ludwig asked if the audience would get to see or hear the letter, and Board President Brian Aldrich said a little later, “it is not the policy of the board to read letters that are sent to a meeting.” He said anyone in the audience could read it during the period set aside for public comments, and Ferguson did so.

Aldrich promised the audience there will be a more in-depth presentation on the move to a tracking system at the board’s Oct. 22 meeting. “Your concerns and comments are not taken lightly,” he said. The board president said a presentation at Thursday’s meeting wasn’t possible because Troutman had to take part in parent-teacher conferences going on at the same time.

Besides Ferguson, several others spoke up with concerns about tracking. “There’s no research supporting tracking, so I was dismayed to hear that move was made,” said Heather McEntarfer, adding that she did not want such an educational experience for her son.

Daniel Parker said that growing up in Westfield, “I was labeled all my life at school as one of the slower kids.” But students were not segregated academically there, he said, and as a result, he took classes with kids who academically achieved higher than he did.

“Because I was exposed to them on a daily basis, I set goals for myself,” he said.

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