Fairfield Ledger
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Neighbors Growing Together | May 26, 2017

Board votes for grade alike

By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | Feb 21, 2017
Courtesy of: Andy Hallman, Ledger editor Fairfield school board members Joe Carr, left, and Jennifer Anderson were among those to vote in favor of grade alike realignment during Monday’s meeting.

The Fairfield Community School District Board of Directors voted 4-3 Monday to adopt a grade alike format for the two remaining elementary schools.

Grade alike means all students in a grade will be in the same building, which is different from the current setup where both Washington and Pence elementary each have their own sections for the same grade. The realignment the board voted for would put preschool through first grade at Washington and second through fourth grade at Pence.

The school board members voting in favor of grade alike were Phil Miller, Joe Carr, Jennifer Anderson and Warren Schaefer. Those voting against were Jeremy Miller, Paul Miller and Kate Van Pelt. The change will take effect next school year.

The board learned that the reorganization subcommittee responsible for researching the pros and cons of various elementary realignments voted 8-7 in favor of grade alike. The subcommittee members who opposed it preferred a restructuring in which students at Libertyville Elementary, which will close at the end of the school year, would all go to Washington.

Phil Miller said he has read all the emails, documents and other materials many times over, and he felt confident supporting grade alike. He said Fairfield would have a great district whether it continued with its current setup or changed to grade alike.

During the public comment section, several people voiced their displeasure with grade alike and urged the board to send Libertyville students to Washington. Phil Miller tried to reassure them by saying, “Grade alike will do no harm, and will do more good than you realize.”

Paul Miller, a member of the reorganization subcommittee, said one of the main arguments for grade alike was that teachers in the same grade could collaborate better under that alignment. He said collaboration is the sort of thing that can occur through emails, phone calls and at all hours of the day, and that it does not require grade alike.

One of the arguments offered against moving Libertyville students to Washington is that it would make the class sizes too large. Paul said that the research the subcommittee reviewed indicated class size does not hurt academic performance. He said transitions, on the other hand, do make a noticeable dent in student test scores.

Paul said he knows from his experience as a divorce attorney that about 50 percent of children grow up in broken homes. He said school can be the one constant in their life, which is why he felt strongly about limiting transitions from one building to the next.

“If we’re going to accomplish grade alike, we need to keep young kids together as long as possible,” he said.

Paul suggested the realignment could put kindergarten through fourth grade at what is now the middle school, fifth-sixth grade at Washington and seventh-eighth grade at Pence.

Schaefer said he supported grade alike because he likes the concept of “one Fairfield,” and that the new alignment would remove the “us versus them mentality.”

“I think children can learn and adapt more than we give them credit for,” he said. “I believe grade alike is a needed change for the district.”

Carr started his remarks by rebutting criticisms of Fairfield and of Iowa he heard earlier at the meeting. He said Iowa is second in the nation in ACT scores, and that Fairfield’s ACT scores are above the state average.

The school board’s agenda showed 29 students requesting open enrollment out of the district for the 2017-18 school year. Twenty-one of those are planning to enroll at Pekin.

Carr said he was saddened to see the large number of open enrollments out of the district, and remarked that he hopes “to see them return” some day.

Carr also read emails he received from teachers and alumni. The common theme of the emails was the feeling Fairfield is divided into two unequal halves. He noted the discrepancy in the percent of students who receive free and reduced price lunches at Pence, where the figure is 60 percent, to Washington, where it’s only 35 percent.

“It is not defensible to have such a disparity between these two buildings,” he said.

Anderson echoed Carr’s comments about how disappointing it was the community views one elementary school as better than the other. She said grade alike would eliminate barriers that should not exist and give teachers a better setting to address student needs.

Anderson said that, under the current configuration, some fourth-graders enter fifth grade at a disadvantage because they have not been exposed to the same material as those in another building. Under grade alike, all the students would get to know their classmates earlier in life, and the teachers at a single grade level would be held accountable by the same principal.

Jeremy Miller said he wouldn’t mind grade alike if the district could achieve it in one building. He couldn’t support the proposal before the board Monday because it required elementary students to move too many times.

Van Pelt said surveys conducted of elementary teachers and parents showed a slight preference for sending the students to Washington over grade alike. Like Jeremy and Paul, she feared that the number of transitions elementary students would face under grade alike would hinder their learning.

“There is a lack of evidence grade alike improves test scores, but there is evidence transitions hurt test scores,” she said.

Several members of the audience spoke at the beginning of the meeting, all but one of them urging the board to oppose grade alike.

Brian Dunlap, who teaches physical education at Washington and Pence, was the only speaker to support grade alike.

Dunlap said the board had a “wonderful opportunity” that night to “level the playing field” between the two elementary schools. He said the board could put an end the perception Fairfield has a “ghetto school” and a “country club school.”

Heidi Ferguson urged the board to consider the results of the elementary teacher and parent surveys indicating a preference for sending the students to Washington, and the fact that the subcommittee’s recommendation to adopt grade alike won by a single vote.

“How can you ignore the wishes of parents?” she asked. “We need to get people to come to the district, not leave.”

After the vote, Ferguson told The Ledger she was disappointed because she felt the board did not listen to the community’s wishes.

Janel Orgovanyi, Kara McWhirter Waugh, Barry Waugh, Mindy Hoskins and Ben Picard all advised the board not to adopt grade alike. Picard added that he would like the board to postpone closing Libertyville for a year.

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