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Report upbeat regarding city school visits

Strengths of the Dunkirk schools include class sizes, the spirit of the students and support systems, while instructional pace and engagement with English as a New Language (ENL) students are among weaknesses, according to a review of the district’s six buildings.

Dr. Deana Stevenson, an Orchard Park-based education consultant who led the review, and Dr. Mark Frazier from the school district presented the findings to the Board of Education last week.

Reviewers made 138 classroom visits earlier this school year and focused on what both teachers and students were doing. Stevenson said the reviewers spent 15 to 20 minutes in each classroom, which she said was enough time to notice patterns.

A support plan is already underway for both teachers and students, based on the review’s findings.

Stevenson and Frazier discussed the middle school, now meeting at Dunkirk High School, first. Stevenson lauded the small class sizes and the attitude of the students.

“You have great kids. I can’t say that enough,” she said. “I wish I could say that to the camera.”

However, the pace of instruction seemed slow. “There was a lot of teacher talk, which is not uncommon at the secondary level because they are content-driven” and have a lot of information to present, Stevenson said.

She explained that when the teacher is almost constantly talking, there is little dialogue with students. In the middle school, “it appeared to me they were a little reluctant to participate if asked a question,” she said.

The high school also has small class sizes and a great student body, Stevenson continued. “They’re eager to learn. They’re almost sitting on the edge of their seats,” she said.

A board member asked if that was because of their return to in-person learning after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the previous school year. “They’re happy to be back. They want to learn and be part of the process,” Stevenson replied.

She added that everyone seemed supportive and helpful with the middle school’s move to the high school building.

As with the middle school, weaknesses at the high school include instructional pace and excessive teacher talk. Stevenson said the questions posed to students were low-level and primarily required just recalling a fact, causing a “one-word response.”

Frazier talked positively about the intermediate school of grades 3 through 6, now located at the Dunkirk Middle School building on Eagle Street.

He said it was “a joy” to visit and that the reconfiguration is going well. He thinks it’s a big strength that each grade’s teachers are all located in the same building.

Lessons at the intermediate school were by and large “incredible.” Frazier said he saw “master teachers at work.”

He added that learning targets were made very clear to the students and their instructional spaces were “incredibly welcoming and just well-done.”

As for the primary schools, small class sizes were again called a strength. There is plenty of staff, students are aware of their expectations and there are strong schoolwide systems and structures in place.

Challenges include instructional pace and ENL student engagement, as is the case at the middle and high schools. Stevenson said some 18% of the students in the district, or 364 students in total, qualify for the ENL program.

She had a message for the Board of Education about their students.

“You have enough capable adults to catch them if they fall,” she said. “So it’s OK if you push them a little.”

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