Teachers, parents working to better curriculum
Sunday, 27 January 2008

Hannah Clarkin
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COVENTRY — Last week, students at Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School of Coventry may have noticed a few unfamiliar faces in their classrooms as parents and faculty members observed classes and took notes.

These visits were part of a "literacy walk," by a subcommittee of the School Improvement Team (SIT). The goal, according to members of the faculty, was to make sure reading, writing, and critical thinking were taking place not only in the English classes, but also in science, math, and everywhere else.

Students may have already noticed this change, English teacher Mary Bettez says. "We’ve been doing a lot of work at the middle level over the past three years so that all teachers will become teachers of reading and apply those practices every minute of the day."

But this year, the middle school is pursuing literacy in a more aggressive way than before, the faculty says.

The literacy walk was only one of the avenues of self-imposed observation and critique at the middle school this year, according to Principal Dr. Michael Almeida.

When Almeida joined the school this fall, assisted by principals Tracey Whitehead and Augusto Gomes, he says the team set out to approach school improvement differently than ever before. Working with a liaison from the Rhode Island Department of Education, the school invited parents to be part of four committees composed of faculty and community members to work in specific areas: literacy, numeracy, personalization, and family and community engagement.

In the fall, Almeida told the Times he wanted to focus first on making the middle school welcoming to families. He did this, he says, by inviting all the parents in the district to be involved with these committees, or SIT teams, and by determining the best ways, through the Web site or the list-serve, to keep parents up-to-date about happenings in the school.

Since October, the SIT teams have been busy and, this spring, many of the plans they implemented in other areas will come to fruition.

"The plan itself is huge and ambitious," says social studies teacher Ted Mitchell, who has been involved with the SIT teams from the beginning. "The biggest thing with SIT in the past was that the staff felt disconnected with the process. But I think we’re seeing a change in the very culture of the school. Everything that has to be decided is done democratically with the faculty and the school administration."

In addition to the work in the literacy program, the numeracy program and personalization programs are slated to begin next month. Numeracy will focus on more across-the-board application of mathematical thinking in all subjects. Personalization will focus on revamping the advisory system to work better on a large middle school model and teacher training for working in teams of four to five per 100 students.

In the area of family and community integration, Almeida says he will host the first "Walk and Talk" through the middle school on Feb. 5. At 9 a.m., parents will be welcome to join Almeida for coffee and refreshments and a short presentation. At 9:30, they will walk through the school and visit classrooms, he says. The practice will continue on the second Tuesday of every month until May.

"This is an attempt to reach out and have strong relations with [parents]," Almeida says.

According to Mary Ellen Morelli, a parent on one of the SIT teams, opening involvement up to all the parents has made an impression. But Morelli says she wishes more parents would respond. "They do extend [the invitation] to everyone. At the last meeting I went to, I was the only parent there."

Morelli says her experience watching the educational process on the committee has given her a fresh perspective. "As a parent," she says. "It was interesting for me to see what was involved, there’s a lot of things that go on that you don’t usually see."