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Tracking fears raised at Fredonia forum

“Class camaraderie is largely absent this year, due to the groupings. School should be a place kids should feel welcome and enjoy going to each day.” Emily VanDette, concerned parent

Tracking is a hot-button word for many in Fredonia these days.

Some parents of middle-schoolers are upset that changes to scheduling for their children seem perilously close to it. A few dozen of them packed a forum at Barker Library on Nov. 4 and made their concerns clear to Superintendent Jeff Sortisio and Board of Education President Brian Aldrich.

Tracking, in an educational context, is the placement of children into separate “tracks” of classes and learning based on their intellectual prowess. In other words, smart kids take all their classes together, children of average intelligence are grouped into a second set of classwork and intellectually challenged children (as defined by the school’s testing) get into a third set.

According to Emily VanDette, a concerned parent who has spoken at a couple of recent Board of Education meetings about the issue and helped plan the forum, “Parents shared examples of how they discovered what ‘track’ their kids were placed in, and how students are being labeled, and are labeling themselves, in damaging ways. … Many concerns were raised regarding the social and emotional impacts on the students. Students are losing relationships with their peers, losing friendships, because they do not see each other in core classes.

“Concerns were raised about the tendency of tracking to discriminate against students of color, students of lower socio-economic status and students with disabilities,” added VanDette, who submitted a summary of the forum to the OBSERVER, which she collaborated on with several parents. “How can the school guarantee educational equity in such a system?”

There were also worries expressed about shortened passing times between classes and lunch periods, VanDette said. Another big issue, she said: a lack of communication between parents and the school district about the implementation of the system. VanDette said there were “concerns about lack of transparency and the inadequacy of (Middle School) Principal (Paula) Troutman’s responses to parents’ questions and concerns so far.”

Troutman, who was not present at the forum, had some responses to it the next night, at the Nov. 5 Board of Education meeting.

“We started today to work on multiple options for future schedules to add the flexibility we feel is important,” Troutman said. Middle school administrators are also working on adding minutes back to lunch periods and the transition between classes, she said.

Sortisio asked her what plan she had to communicate the changes. Troutman mentioned “using our site-based team” and making better use of robocalls to parents.

Board member Tom Hawk asked what she was hearing from students. “We’re really not hearing anything that’s negative from students,” she responded. “I haven’t had students in my office complaining.”

Steven Johnston, the board’s newest member, then asked Troutman if many parents had come to her with concerns. “Not lately,” she said, although “five to seven” spoke to her personally earlier in the school year.

In VanDette’s notes on the forum, she stated, “Some parents expressed a loss of trust in the school, as a result of the lack of communication and transparency about the new system. Parents who used to feel confidence in the school are having to spend more time monitoring and advocating than ever before.”

Board member Lisa Fortna was also at the forum and commented the next night, “It still seems that there is not a consistent understanding of what is in place.” Aldrich added, “It struck us that there was a proliferation of false narrative out in the public.”

Acknowledging work needs to be done in communicating about the class scheduling changes, Troutman defended them.

Minutes were taken from class passing times and lunch periods “so we could add it to classes,” she said. “It wasn’t because of students misbehaving that we did that.”

The principal asserted, “Even though it’s early, we have heard the kids are having a lot of success in the classroom. They feel successful.”

Still, she said, “We knew when we created our schedule, it was our starting point.”

According to VanDette, the parents who were at the forum aren’t too impressed with that start.

“A big shift took place in Fredonia Middle School this year,” she stated. “Students don’t look forward to school anymore. Class camaraderie is largely absent this year, due to the groupings. School should be a place kids should feel welcome and enjoy going to each day.”

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