Many questions

Supporters of Project LEAP and enrichment classes in Naperville School District 203 fill the meeting room Monday, April 7, 2014, to voice their concerns about a district plan to shift the jobs of reading and gifted education assistants to a role as instructional assistant.  |  Suzanne Baker ~ Sun-Times Media
Supporters of Project LEAP and enrichment classes in Naperville School District 203 fill the meeting room Monday, April 7, 2014, to voice their concerns about a district plan to shift the jobs of reading and gifted education assistants to a role as instructional assistant. | Suzanne Baker ~ Sun-Times Media

Eight-year-old Annie Ayoub told the Naperville District 203 School Board Monday night she enjoys getting math enrichment activities because that is “when I get to stretch my thinking.”

The third-grader, like many parents of gifted education and reading intervention students, want to know why the district wants to change the way tutoring and enrichment is provided in the classroom at the elementary level.

A standing-room-only crowd filled the District 203 meeting seeking answers and tangible proof that it is better to eliminate educational support personnel — LEAP reading intervention assistants, K-LEAP kindergarten reading intervention assistants and enrichment assistants — in exchange for creating a new position of instruction assistant. The district says the new instruction assistant will collaborate with teachers to meet the individualized needs of students in all core areas of the curriculum, not just reading and math.

An instructional assistant would be assigned at each grade level from kindergarten through second grade. An additional assistant would be provided if a school has more than four sections at a grade level.

The biggest question the crowd had was how the new assistants’ time would be divided between teachers, in addition to within the classrooms.

Superintendent Dan Bridges said while the district strives to keep the community informed, he admitted the district “missed the target” bringing the proposal forward right before spring break. To give the community time to respond and give School Board members time to digest the information, he said a vote authorizing the dismissal of educational support personnel would be delayed until the April 21 board meeting.

The controversy drew LEAP loyalists, who say children who need early intervention could fall through the cracks without one-on-one contact, and supporters of enrichment programs, who fear gifted students will get less instructional time.

A former District 203 assistant superintendent for nine years, Chris Raucher said reading is the most important thing a student in kindergarten through second grade does.

“It’s to the point now with our economy and our global society that if you can’t read, you have real, significant problems to the point that people talk about reading being a civil right,” Raucher said.

Raucher, who now works with American Institutes for Research, said students who cannot read well by second grade struggle the rest of their school experience. She added there is a correlation between how a student reads in second grade and dropout rates, teenage pregnancy and involvement with the juvenile justice system.

LEAP, Raucher said, was designed with a specific purpose in mind to provide intervention, not remediation, so that the students no longer need assistance.

Sharon Bitzer, a LEAP tutor and support leader for 20 years, urged the board members to talk to reading specialists and parents about LEAP and its benefits. She disputes the district administration’s assertions that the program students are pulled out of class during core curriculum lessons, saying the kids are removed during independent practice time so they won’t miss critical instruction.

Jay Fisher, president of Supporters of Talented and Gifted Education (STAGE), said the proposal for instructional assistants raises many questions. He asked how the district plans to ensure the focus is balanced on both ends of the spectrum or if the time will be divided in some other percentage. He wanted guarantees that the new model will address the needs of gifted students.

Sonia Harmon, also with STAGE, echoed Fisher’s concerns and noted the district should provide hard numbers showing the district’s proposal will work.

Jennifer Hajer, whose children benefited from both LEAP and enrichment, said the solution to providing enrichment activities for gifted students should not involve a computer program.

“Here’s the deal, gifted children do not need more technology,” she said. “I don’t want technology to be the differentiated tool for gifted children in the district.”

Kitty Ryan, assistant superintendent, said Project LEAP was initially developed to address the literacy needs of first-grade students who did not qualify for special education services or long-term reading support.

“Twenty-five years ago it was cutting edge,” Ryan said.

Ryan said a LEAP assistant often works with a student for 35 minutes at a time, with 35 minutes needed for planning. Using that time frame, LEAP assistants can work with about three students a day.

Under the new model, she said instructional assistants will work directly with students five hours a day.

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