Anger, confusion surround ‘equal access’ at Summit County schools
The Summit School District Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to create a task force to advise the superintendent on how best to proceed with the district’s goal of encouraging high achievement among all students. “I have a feeling there are strong feelings toward the school board and this decision,” the school board’s student liaison, Amanda Moore, said as board president Jon Kreamelmeyer reluctantly opened the floor to public comment prior to the vote. Moore encouraged open-mindedness and respect among those in the room, even those dissatisfied with how the district has chosen to implement “equal access” in the classrooms. “I’ve lived in Denver, too (and) I’ve never seen a school board who actually lets their community talk,” Moore said. “Even though you have strong opinions on this, do not take it out on our school board. They have done the best any school board can do for their district.” Equal access puts students of all learning levels in the same classroom to be taught high-level curriculum. Teachers then divide students into ability levels to work together on the material and form assessments by ability. The practice – which is being rolled out this year in the middle school and has been in place for 9th and 10th grade social studies and science – is in contrast to the traditional model, where honors and other high-achieving students are taught separately. Opponents of the way the district has chosen to implement the philosophy say there are different ways of achieving equal access, which grew out of the district’s goal “to ensure equity and access for all of our students so that all students are assured a high-quality education regardless of differences.” “I think you’re ignoring (that) the vast majority of people in (August’s forum) applaud the objectives, they just don’t like the model,” parent and board member Brad Piehl’s wife, Jessica Wald, said. The task force is designed to give a voice to those alternatives, superintendent Heidi Pace said. The recommendations that will come out of the 18-member (plus a facilitator and any ex-officio members, as needed) task force could better guide a system to replace that which has parents dissatisfied, or it could reinforce what’s already in place, she said. According to Pace’s plan, the task force will be established quickly, in time to meet for four consecutive Thursdays from 4:30 to 8 p.m. starting on Sept. 22 at Summit High School. At the end of the four weeks, the task force will present a report to the superintendent, and a recommendation will be made accordingly. Currently, a board vote on the suggestions is slated for Oct. 25, just five days after the “drop-dead” report deadline.”I wanted to move forward more quickly because if it’s not going to work, we don’t want to keep going down this path,” Pace said. “We don’t want to keep rehashing the same thing. We have heard the concerns and want to address them in the most positive way.”
During the comment period, many parents voiced concern about the rapid turnaround. They wanted more time to digest and comment on the task force’s report before a decision is made. It could be a task force recommendation to allow more time, Pace said, but for now, her proposal will commence as outlined. “This is highly charged and it’s been very emotional … I do want to assure you that this is going to be the best task force ever, and people will come to a better idea than what we’re currently doing.” Pace said. “And we will move forward. I have a lot of confidence in the collective synergy (in the community).” Other parents attending the heated meeting suggested putting more students on the task force to match the six-fold representation of parents. They also wanted to know how representatives would be chosen and who they would be. Many questioned the involvement of principals, who might inadvertently dissuade dissenting comments, but board members and Pace insisted their expertise is necessary, that they should be involved in decisions on how their schools are run and that the group’s facilitator, assistant superintendent Karen Strakbein, would find ways to ensure every voice is heard. Parents also wanted to know how they could provide input, and board members suggested they find and communicate with their task force representatives.
As was the case in August’s forum on equal access, which saw attendance of roughly 200, many at Tuesday’s meeting are still unclear about the equal access concept, how it’s being implemented and its effects. “Ninety percent of the people who attended the (forum) were there to be informed,” parent Carol Craig said. “Two out of 10 at my table knew what it even meant. We were given questions we didn’t even know how to answer.” Information gathered at the late August forum was compiled into a Q&A document available on the Summit School District website, though Craig said not all questions were answered. Boardmember Margaret Carlson said the forum was necessary to gauge the extent of parent confusion. Armed with that information, efforts are being made to communicate the answers to questions. Carlson added that it’s difficult for board members to stay on top of accurate communication when messages are circulating wildly among email lists that may not include entirely accurate information. “All you’re getting is one side of the story and receiving propaganda as you’re coming into a forum and you’re not getting all the facts – which, yes we could have done a better job of,” she said.
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