EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 30, 2013

Methuen schools move forward with changes

By Douglas Moser
dmoser@eagletribune.com

---- — METHUEN — This is something of a transition year for Methuen schools.

Along with districts across the commonwealth, schools here are adjusting curriculum to new national standards and implementing new teacher evaluations required by new state rules. On top of those changes, the high school here is in the middle of a near-total rebuild and changes in classrooms technology are poised to ramp up.

“The district has been preparing for some of these changes for several years and teachers and staff are ready to move forward implementing some of these changes,” said Bryan Sweet, administrative manager of research at Massachusetts General Hospital and a candidate for School Committee.

Superintendent Judith Scannell said her administration has been working on the changes since 2010. “We knew what was ahead as far as the high school renovation, common core, technology, PARCC testing, the teacher evaluation tool,” she said. “The Leadership team as well as our teaching staff are committed to providing the best education possible for our students.”

Administrators have been working on a new curriculum for more than a year. Richard Beshara, former principal of Marsh Grammar School and now a candidate for School Committee, said he worked on the kindergarten portion last spring. The changes are in line with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which was designed by groups of state education and political leaders around the country and outlines what students should know and be able to do in each grade. Massachusetts adopted the standards in 2010 in exchange for extra federal education funding.

The new standards will go into effect next year. Methuen is working with the state Department of Education in piloting a new test called PARCC administered online and built around the standards that, if it proves as rigorous as the current MCAS exam, could become the new standard test in the near future.

Dennis “D.J.” Deeb, a candidate for School Committee and a teacher at Reading Memorial High School, UMass Lowell and Bunker Hill Community College, said he likes some aspects of Common Core, like “returning to basics in English-language arts,” but wants to make sure they are as good as or better than the existing standards.

“I think there are some good aspects of Common Core and we have to adhere to it because the state mandated it, but I’m concerned about future teaching to the test and lowering the standards,” he said.

While teachers are learning a new curriculum, they also are working under a new evaluation system that takes student performance and improvement into account and includes more classroom observations.

“I think that will be good for teachers and our education the more evaluations that can be done in the classroom to find what’s working well and what’s not and why some students aren’t doing better,” Beshara said.

Lynn Hajjar Kumm, a School Committee member up for re-election this year, said the committee, with two members on the Building Committee overseeing the high school renovation project, has been deeply involved with that project. The newly renovated and expanded southern wing opened to students earlier this month.

The School Department introduced iPads to the ninth-grade classes, temporarily housed at Central School off Lawrence Street during the renovation, last year and purchased enough this year to have one for each student. The district’s technology plan expands iPad use to the entire high school by 2016, Scannell said. Indeed, the new high school will be prepared for individual mobile technology in the classroom with digital televisions and wireless Internet.

Deeb said technology like Smartboards, which are large stationary boards in classrooms that work with projectors, that he uses in his classrooms are a “godsend.”

“You can reach three types of learning styles at once,” he said. “Technology, when used appropriately in the classroom, can motivate a lot of at-risk students.”

Beshara said one key to managing all the change is keeping anxiety and frustration among teachers to a minimum. The new dean of students in each grammar school is another place to go for help.

“They have enough that they can help the teachers,” he said. “Once the teachers feel comfortable, then the students will feel comfortable. If the teachers are anxious that comes across. As an administrator, you have to get your staff on board and let them know you support them.”

Kumm said all the changes are progress for the schools, and the main thing the committee can do is back the administration, make sure they have a quality team and support the superintendent’s budget.

“I feel we have the right leadership and I think that’s what’s important,” she said.

Sweet said the committee’s job is to stay up on the changes and have alternative plans ready if needed. “I don’t see the job of the School Committee to manage these things but to be kept up to date on the progress,” he said. “The School Committee should be making sure there is continued progress and that they are moving forward in these areas.”

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