WEST WINDSOR-PLAINSBORO Parents, board give mixed marks to changes in accelerated math program

By Lea Kahn, Staff Writer
WEST WINDSOR — School district officials’ proposal to redesign the Accelerated and Enriched Mathematics Program met with mixed reactions — from both the school board and parents — when it was rolled out Tuesday night.
A decision on the redesign of the program will not be made until the school board’s December meeting, however. The proposal is slated to be discussed again at the school board’s Nov. 17 meeting, with an opportunity for more public comment.
Martin Smith, the school district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, walked the school board through the proposal, which calls for dropping the program in grades four and five, while about 50 attendees listened and watched Tuesday night.
Under the proposed redesign of the Accelerated and Enriched Mathematics Program, which is part of the school district’s Gifted and Talented Program, the math program would begin in sixth grade, Mr. Smith said. There would not be other changes in the math program, which runs through 12th grade.
One of the reasons for the proposed redesign is the ability to pick out children who could benefit from it, but whose parents do not nominate them for it, Mr. Smith said. Presently, parents nominate their child in the third grade and the child is tested to find out whether it would be a good fit.
Some parents enroll their children in test-preparation courses, Mr. Smith said, adding that there is no need for a first-grader to be enrolled in such courses. School district officials want to avoid the “I’m a failure at 8 years old” mentality, he said.
About 80 percent of third grade children are recommended to be tested, but some are not tested because their parents did not nominate them, he said. Of those children who are nominated and tested, about 5 to 10 percent are enrolled in the Accelerated and Enriched Mathematics Program.
There are children who are put into a situation where they take the test, but they are not ready for it, Mr. Smith said, adding that some of those children “literally break down” when they take the test. About 70 or 75 percent of children are being set up to be labeled as failures because they took the test and were not accepted into the program, he said.
There is some dispute as to whether a third-grader is mature enough, Mr. Smith said. A fifth-grader is more mature, and delaying the start of the program would allow school district officials to identify more children who would benefit from it. Children in fifth grade would be assessed to see if they would qualify for the Accelerated and Enriched Mathematics Program.
Those children who were deemed eligible for the sixth-grade program but who chose not to pursue it, as well as children who were not eligible based on testing in the fifth grade, would be given another chance to be assessed for enrollment in the seventh-grade program, Mr. Smith said.
School district officials recognize that fouth- and fifth-graders have a range of abilities, and the goal is to meet the needs of all children — including high-performing students, Mr. Smith said. One way to meet their needs would be the implementation of “differentiated instruction” — tailoring lessons to each child’s abilities and needs. Teachers would be coached in how to apply it.
If the redesign is approved by the school board, it would be phased in over three years — beginning with the 2015-16 school year, Mr. Smith said. Differentiated instruction would begin to be implemented. That year’s crop of third-graders would not be tested for the Accelerated and Enriched Mathematics Program, but fourth- and fifth-grade students who are already in the program would continue to be in it.
After Mr. Smith completed his presentation, school board member Yingchao Zhang suggested that from a young age, children should be prepared to deal with disappointment. A student’s health and well-being can be taken into account, but academics should not be compromised, he said.
Mr. Zhang asked whether a parallel or pilot program for differentiated instruction could be implemented. He said his concern was that until a better program can be found, the Accelerated and Enriched Mathematics Program should remain in place. It is possible that a program that is working could be eliminated, he added.
Many of the parents objected to the proposal to eliminate the Accelerated and Enriched Mathematics Program for fourth- and fifth-graders.
One parent told the school board that “There is an old saying in Taiwan, (that) ‘Before you put on new shoes, don’t thrown out the old ones.’ ” If the math enrichment program is working, why eliminate it, he said.
Another parent said that although his child did not pass the screening test for the math program, he never told his child that he was a failure. The reason that people choose to live in West Windsor is because the schools are “awesome,” he said, advocating for keeping the math program for fourth- and fifth-grade students.
Noting that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” another parent said the New York City schools have used differentiated instruction “and it works.” Whatever model is chosen, the message is to trust the teachers to be able to implement it, she said.
Superintendent of Schools David Aderhold said school district officials would take the feedback from the parents and consider it. He said that “we are talking about 8-year-old children. It is just not the right time developmentally (for the Accelerated and Enhanced Mathematics Program), but we have to provide” for children who need the stimulation.