Last night a working group of educators from Middlebrook School presented to the Board of Education about beginning steps they’ve taken in a potential schedule change for the school.

The effort grew out of a desire to add more math instructional time into the school day. In addition, they recalled attempts in the past several years to find ways to “tweak” or change the schedule–only to step back and leave the current schedule in place. But now there’s a renewed push, fortified by the group’s participation at professional development targeted toward helping middle school educators develop schedules that better fit the needs of their schools.

Middlebrook educators present to the Board of Education their plan for changing the schedule at Middlebrook. (L-R) Lauren Feltz, Mike McLaughlin, Polly Metz, Janet Nobles and Damien Whelan.

Damien Whelan, a dean at Middlebrook and a member of the working group, told the Board of Education that rather than focus on “tweaking and saving or moving minutes from here to there, now we’re starting with a clean slate and looking at how we allocate our time across all subject areas,” in addition to math.

Joining Whelan on the working group, and presenting last night, were Janet Nobles, STRIDE instructional leader; Polly Metz, special education teacher; Mike McLaughlin, Writing Workshop teacher; and Middlebrook principal Lauren Feltz.

They explained the factors driving the discussion around shaping the schedule changes:

  • Increasing instructional time in core academic areas–Math, English/Language Arts (ELA), Science and Social Studies:
  • Curriculum Revision:  Over the past few years, the core areas have had big revisions of curriculum, bringing with it a big learning curve for teachers.
  • Increasing student collaboration time and teacher collaboration time:  Curriculum revision impacted the amount of interdisciplinary team work the school prefers to have. In addition, learning is now more student-centered. “Through all of this we’re trying to [maintain] the huge passion in our school for transdisciplinary work, and we know we can achieve that more if we focus both on core content and getting our teachers to work together to come up with great ideas for our kids to work on in transdisciplinary project-based learning,” Nobles explained.
  • Declining Enrollment:  While they said that declining enrollment “isn’t a main concern,” they do want to take that into account. “While setting up structures, we want to make sure those structures are malleable and can change with us as enrollment declines moving forward,” McLaughlin said.
  • Achievement Gap between Typical Learners and High Need Students:  Metz said that the school is “committed to remediating a problematic achievement gap,” and that “performance data show we’re not adequately growing our high need students–those with IEPs, English-language learners and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, as well as students in intervention and AIM (additional instruction in math) programs.The current schedule has constraints in ways that inhibit resources from being flexibly deployed. “We need to create a program that helps ALL of our learners and eliminates opportunity gap for higher need students,” she said.
  • Input from teachers:  Feltz acknowledged wanting to make significant effort to involve all the school’s faculty in the conversation, both because they “are the experts in young adolescent instruction,” but also because any schedule changes will impact staffing–in other words, in compensation and possible job reduction or elimination.”It’s a really charged issue. Their life work is invested in teaching Wilton schoolchildren at the middle school level. It’s emotionally charged also, because if you take time from one program and give to another, ultimately it does impact the professional staffing levels at the school. So we want to take a moment to really sing the praises of the staff for the way they dug into that conversation. They asked wonderful questions and came forward with all kinds of things to consider,” Feltz said. She added that keeping the staff engaged in the conversation is priority, and a great deal of remaining staff time this year will be dedicated to conversation between the working group and the whole staff.
  • Input from parents and students:  Right now there are four PTA reps in the working group. In the future more feedback will be solicited from more parents and students, through surveys and focus groups.

The working group has come up with a mission and a timeline:

“Our mission is to finalize a schedule for 2021-2022 by June 2020 that meets the needs of the students, provides adequate instructional time to meet the demands of Common Core instruction and aligns with our core values. We see to maintain a team structure that creates a positive learning environment that fosters independence, academic an emotional growth by

    • putting students’ needs first
    • instilling the value and core knowledge of all subjects
    • cultivating interdisciplinary opportunities
    • creating time to collaborate

Feltz reiterated that the goal is not to adopt or adapt another town’s schedule. “We’re looking to build a schedule that really embraces and works on behalf of our values and what we know is best for Wilton children.”

Timeline and Plan

With a goal of having a finished recommendation by May 2020, the team has mapped out a timeline. The working group will meet weekly. Up until now, they have been gathering information–comparing and researching other schools’ schedules (in the DRG and elsewhere), speaking with Middlebrook teachers, getting input from the district’s instructional leaders in all curriculum areas to hear about best practices.

They’ve also fleshed out the working group. Feltz said it was important to have a solid diversity of people on committee, including administrators, teachers and parents.

Here’s how the next steps are planned out:

  • Early March–focus on Social and Emotional instruction:  study what the district’s goals are for next few years, and how that best fits into the schedule–will it be a component of all classes? a specific class? How will that be brought into the school?
  • Mid March–look at how scheduling impacts high need and intervention students (AIM, intervention in math and reading, English language learners, special education, and free/reduced lunch students). This involves “understanding what limits their growth, and what the schedule can do to assist making more success for those students.”
  • Late March/Early April:  define the optimal program
  • April:  discuss the schedule structure details–building models, working out the pros and cons
  • May:  make a recommendation for the schedule to start 2021-2022.

Maintaining Teams at Middlebrook

The basic structure of teams at Middlebrook almost certainly won’t change. Feltz said that teams “are the norm in middle schools.”

“All experts in the field says developmentally it’s the right thing. It really does allow us to have wrap-around care,” she said, which is important for the adolescent years.

Nobles concurred:  “I don’t think there’s a teacher at Middlebrook who will tell you that teaming isn’t at the heart of everything we do. Everyone realizes that there may be some changes with team structure in some way, but that’s the way we know our students.”

However, what may change is some of the structure–looking at what subjects are on teams, how many teachers, etc. “Teaming can mean different things,” Feltz added.

For the courses built around the teams, particularly STRIDE classes, the group will ask two questions:  Are there things Middlebrook offers that don’t align with the school’s values and vision? and, Are there things that align with the vision and values that are not being offered?

Overall, the group reiterated that the ideal objective is to start with a blank slate and figure out what works for the school community, rather than tweak or “shimmy” things into the current schedule. “If we start with blank slate, what would we want it to look like?” Feltz said.

Communication with Parents:  “Transparency is our schtick.”

Feltz acknowledged the need to keep very open communication lines with parents around the process. But she underscores that right now there isn’t much to communicate, as the team is really in more of an information gathering and learning stage. There’s no working model yet, nor are there any specifics. As of right now, there’s only a cross section of people working on it, and the timeline.

“We will do a lot of communicating to parents–when we have something to report. The part we are doing now is not that exciting to report. We’re learning the context of what’s important and what you need to do that well. Transparency is our schtick,” she said.

The team also understands that this process won’t make everyone happy–either among teachers or the community.  “There’s not going to be full consensus and we know that. That’s part of the transparency, that some decisions are going to have to be made at administrative levels,” Feltz said.

She also stresses that she wants to prevent “the rumor mill.”

“When people have questions, they can come forward and ask them. The easiest thing is send the question to me. If people are hearing things and they want clarification, we welcome the conversation.”