By Cady Kuzmich
CLIFTON PARK — The Shenendehowa school board on May 10 started out like any other.
To begin the board recognized the hard work and tenacity of Shenendehowa’s girls’ 4 x 800 relay team, which won the 4 x 800 race at the Penn Relays last month.
Superintendent Robinson and the board then spoke about the proposed $166 million school budget for the 2016-2017 school year and four other propositions which would be voted on Tuesday, May 17. Board members encouraged community members and students of age to get out and vote.
Tensions between some board members and teachers became apparent, however, after two veteran teachers addressed the board during a public comment period.
Sarah Quinn, an 18-year teacher in Acadia School, addressed the board to air her concerns regarding the proposed Homework and Grading policy.
“I’m very hesitant to speak up here,” she began. “It makes me nervous, speaking out as a teacher in my own district, even though I’m a resident and a taxpayer. There’s a somewhat narrow line that I find myself walking quite often,” she said.
“I have faith in my children’s teachers — my colleagues, my friends, my neighbors. I want every teacher to really feel empowered by policies and regulations rather than restricted by them,” Quinn added.
He comments targeted drafts of a homework and grading policy for the district, which seeks to make homework and grading practices more consistent among grade levels and less time-consuming for students. The version of the policy available on the district’s website would establish time expectation guidelines on homework assignments based on grade levels — 10 minutes for first graders, 60 minutes for sixth graders, etc — a notion that is troubling to many teachers.
A group of teachers at the district compiled 11 pages of comments in response to the policies. One teacher worried about the policies’ impact on students who work at a slower pace than their classmates, that the “arbitrary” time limits would make those students feel “behind, unsuccessful, and not measuring up.” Another teacher wondered if honor courses would need to cut out entire units of study in order to adhere to the policies and time limits.
Another facet of the policy involves reducing the weight of homework in student’s grades — which some teachers argue will lead to more testing.
Quinn continued, “I would expect teachers to use their solid professional judgment to build a strong program within their classrooms for my students, for my kids. Stakes for teachers and students are getting harder and higher. Teachers do have a number of very serious concerns. I want my children challenged at every level. I know that the rigor we intend as community members and practitioners here are committed to excellence and I do worry that these policies may impede that.”
Another longtime Shenendehowa teacher, Ann Moore, who has been teaching at Shen for 20 years, asked the board “to slow down the process to give all stakeholders time to digest and respond to the final draft.”
Moore said special education educators’ voices weren’t heard in a survey regarding the Homework and Grading policies. She added, “Before you’ve even voted on it we’ve been directed to implement parts of the proposed policies for the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year.”
Board President William Casey said: “What is on our agenda tonight is a first reading. We’ll consider the comments that come in and start coming up with new policies. We have received 11 pages of comments this afternoon. This is a process that involves a lot of communication. We are committed to trying to move this this year. I’m not going to mince words on this. If we don’t, we lose a year. Does it put more pressure on us? Yes, it does.”
The board’s vice president, Robert Pressly, recalled hearing about a student who had to wait 150 days for a paper to be graded and returned. “That’s an abuse of the system,” he said. Pressly referred to existing homework practices as “redundant” and “excessive,” especially the summer workload for advanced placement classes.
As the meeting drew to a close, Casey said, “I don’t want anyone to leave here with the feeling it’s us against them. It’s all us. This isn’t a finger-pointing exercise.”
He expressed his commitment to work with the policy committee to create a policy that is clear and that gives enough flexibility. “I’m on the policy committee and I can see some red flags in here. This is only for informational purposes at this time,” Casey added.
In a written statement, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment, Elizabeth Wood said, “Updating these policies provides an opportunity to foster greater consistency across classes for students, articulate common expectations, and ultimately support students in their learning through research-based practices.”
Wood added, “Some fine-tuning of the proposed policy language is expected in the coming weeks as the district prepares to seek Board of Education approval of the updated policies in June. The policies would be rolled out in the 2016-17 school year and the district will continue to facilitate discussions on the implementation of the new guidelines.”