Anne Arundel County Schools Trying Heterogeneous Grouping
School system offers more students access to rigorous coursework at all county elementary schools with Advanced Learner Programs, and at Annapolis High and Central Middle.
Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) hopes that offering greater access to rigorous coursework will increase achievement for all students. New Advanced Learner Programs at all county elementary schools was one step taken in this new direction.
Heterogeneous grouping became a hot topic after the principal at Annapolis High announced last spring his intention to utilize it at the school. While that possibility is still being investigated, Central Middle in Edgewater grouped sixth-grade students together in the same math level (Algebraic Readiness) starting with this school year.
At Wednesday's AACPS Board of Education meeting, parents of Central Middle students took a stand against grouping higher-performing students with lower-performing ones in math classes. However, the school's principal stands by the decision.
“This year my sixth graders arrived having had the best scores ever on the Maryland State Assessment, which has allowed us to offer all sixth graders advanced level classes,” Principal Mildred Beall wrote in a letter to parents in September.
Traditionally, students are grouped in classes based on performance. The goal of heterogeneous grouping is to have honors-level students learn alongside those who are struggling, ideally supporting each other in the classroom. But some parents have said they are concerned it may hold back the most dedicated students, who sit idly by while teachers struggle to keep an even pace with the rest of the class.
Karen Colburn, the parent of a Central Middle student, approached the school board on Wednesday night armed with a petition bearing 200 signatures, asking the board to put a stop to heterogeneous grouping at their school until further studies had proven its value in the classroom. She called it an experiment thrust onto students before it was properly studied.
“The truth is that for every study you can cite that shows that HG works for low achievers, I can show you one that shows the risk for high achievers,” Colburn said.
Stefan Koziolek said his son, who was once challenged by schoolwork, came home each day bored by the class.
"This punishes advanced students," Koziolek said.
Allen Kruger, the parent of two students at Central Middle, said he was incensed that faculty kept this practice from parents until after the school year began.
“Not only was this hoisted upon us without any transparency, but there continues to be an effort to cover it up,” Kruger said. “As educators you should be embarrassed that you’re trying to hide this, sneak it past, and not deal with us in an appropriate manner.”
The petition Colburn brought was seeking action, but board members didn’t offer a response during the meeting. Afterward, Board Member Deborah Ritchie of Pasadena (District 31) said it was unlikely they would take a formal stance on the issue.
Though Ritchie said she personally approves of heterogeneous grouping, believing it to be an effective teaching technique, it’s not something she thinks should be instituted across the entire school system.
“I like it because I think we can learn from each other,” Ritchie said. “But the fact is, it may not work in some other school. It needs to be an individual decision of the school.”
In an interview with Patch last month, Board President Patricia Nalley also vouched for heterogeneous grouping, saying that she had seen it work in the classroom.
“In my experience, I saw that it worked in an elementary setting,” Nalley said. “We didn’t call it that [heterogeneous grouping] at the time, though. It was mixed-ability grouping, and I believe it’s been a proven method in elementary schools.”
Annapolis High Principal Donald Lilley has made it known that he would like to implement heterogeneous grouping. It was originally scheduled to go into effect this school year but Lilley held off, saying he’d like more time to study its effectiveness, and to gather the input of parents.
At the board meeting on Sept. 21, the Annapolis Education Commission (AEC) made a presentation indicating that parents were still skeptical of the grouping procedure. Jeff Macris, chairman of the AEC, said more positive proof of the method was needed before implementation.
“Parents want to see demonstrable proof that it can work in our local schools under Annapolis’ unique set of challenges and circumstances,” Macris said.
Assistant Superintendent George Arlotto said heterogeneous grouping wasn’t a system-wide policy. It’s a decision being made by principals and faculty, and they have the power to manage their facilities as they see fit, he said.
Board Ends Budget Year on High Note
The school board closed the book on the 2010-2011 school year’s budget, which ended the fiscal year with a $15 million surplus in the general fund.
This leftover amount will be used as a reserve buffer as staff prepare for next year’s budget, unless the board provides a specific directive for the funds, said Director of Budget and Finance Susan Bowen.
Bowen also provided the board with a glimpse at next year’s 2012-2013 budget, indicating that expenses haven’t been reduced.
“What I can tell you is that the numbers are not going down,” she said.
A more complete budget picture should be ready by December, when Superintendent Kevin Maxwell will deliver his general operations budget to the board for approval.