By Lawrence Journal-World |

Lawrence school board members surprised, ‘deeply troubled’ by some middle school schedule changes

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Lawrence school board member Shannon Kimball, at right, speaks during the board's Monday, March 25, 2019 meeting. At left and center are board members Rick Ingram and Kelly Jones.

Lawrence school board member Shannon Kimball was taken by surprise when she heard complaints from constituents about changes coming this fall to middle school schedules.

“When this plan was ready to be talked about publicly, I didn’t hear about it from you all — I heard about it from an email from somebody else who was angry and I had to reply to them that I’m sorry, but this is the first time I’ve heard about this,” Kimball told members of a committee that’s been working on the plans during Monday’s school board meeting. “That’s not the way I want something this large to come to the board.”

But beyond the surprise factor, other components of the new schedule — which didn’t require the board’s approval — left one board member “deeply troubled,” and the restructuring will likely lead to class sizes that Kimball said she “can’t justify.”

Opening with background, Jennifer Bessolo, director of curriculum, told board members that the scheduling committee has formed and disbanded multiple times, but some form of it has been in existence since around the time the schools were renamed from junior highs to middle schools in 2011. Rick Henry, director of secondary schools, said that many of the participants on the committee’s latest iteration have been on board for the last five years.

• • •

Under the current schedule, sixth- and seventh-graders have two class periods of English language arts instruction per day. The schedule changes, which the committee voted unanimously to approve, will eliminate the second ELA period and will add 12 minutes to the first, and to each of the other three core subjects — science, math and social studies. Each core subject will meet for 55 minutes per day, and the three elective classes per day will remain 43-minute periods.

Some teachers and administrators who spoke at the meeting mentioned concerns about some key performance measures. One chief problem they mentioned is that nearly three-quarters of Lawrence eighth-graders scored a 1 or 2 on state math assessments, which means below grade level or just meeting grade-level proficiency.

Part of that may be attributed to the shortened amount of time students currently spend in math classes in middle school, Southwest Middle School math teacher Elizabeth Gabel told the board on Monday, as compared to the 90 minutes per day in elementary school and 55 in high school.

“I would love to be able to help you guys fix that, but I don’t have time (in class),” she said. “We really appreciate you considering the time, and it was unanimous that this is something that needed to happen. We can’t just keep trying to fix something without changing anything.”

Also, Bessolo said the schedule changes would likely mean an average increase of four to five students in each core class. Those class sizes currently range from about 20 to 30 students, she said.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Jennifer Bessolo, Lawrence school district director of curriculum, speaks to the school board at its Monday, March 25, 2019 meeting.

“I can’t justify to a middle school parent to have 35 students in a science class,” Kimball said. “That’s the kind of stuff that when people start coming to ask about this, I’m going to say, ‘Yeah, you’re right, … and I can’t do anything about it.’ So it’s kind of hard to wrap my head around being super supportive of the plan.”

Board member Kelly Jones said she was “deeply troubled” that for eighth-graders, physical education classes will be only one semester rather than year-round. Citing federal guidelines, she noted the importance of physical activity for teenagers because of its benefits to mental health — particularly as Lawrence middle schools have reported an increase in behavioral challenges.

“It’s not a correlation, it’s causal — physical activity has a causal reduction in stress and reduction in behavioral challenges,” said Jones, who teaches at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare. She added that the district should be doing more to promote activity rather than limit it.

Board member Rick Ingram, who teaches psychology at KU, agreed.

“If I run every other day through the year, I’m going to be fit,” he said. “If I run every day for half the year and then take the second half of the year off, then it all goes away. How you space this makes a difference.”

• • •

The board thanked the committee members for all the time they’d put into planning the schedule and working together, but said that communication around the plan was a problem. Jones, for instance, said she thought that somewhere in the course of planning, there must have been a miscommunication about when the plan would go into effect — some teachers told her they thought the changes wouldn’t come until 2020.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis told the board that there was a lot to learn from the process, and “I definitely take ownership of the communication piece.”

“And my team will tell you I don’t like being surprised, and I shared with the board, I don’t want to surprise you as well,” he said. “But what we know about this work and the work that we need to do for this district is it’s transformational work. It’s not transactional work. … I did not come here to maintain the status quo.”

Jones said she wondered if there might be cause to add another full-time communication staff member “so that we don’t run into a situation where a committee that’s been working for five years gets to the finish line and doesn’t have a communication plan.”

“I apologize as I look back and see a lot of things that we could do better, and I’m hoping the communication gaps that occurred don’t affect the potential of the model moving forward,” Bessolo said.

Phase two of the committee’s work will dig deep into curriculum, Bessolo told the board.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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• • 785-832-7198 • Facebook/Facebook messenger: mclarkljw • Twitter: @mclark_ljw

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