Mixed Early Reviews For School’s New Learning Initiative

BERLIN – While school system officials remain excited about a pilot program at Snow Hill Middle School, parents are still trying to get some understanding of the initiative.

During Tuesday’s meeting of the Worcester County Board of Education, parent Andrea Mathias voiced concerns about the Summit Basecamp personalized learning program that has been implemented for the sixth grade at Snow Hill Middle School (SHMS).

She said parents had very little information about the program and weren’t even sure who should answer their questions about the initiative.

“Under what authority was the curriculum decision made in the first place?” she said. “A debt of accountability is owed. An obligation of transparency needs to be fulfilled.”

The school system announced in August that the sixth grade at SHMS would be taking part in the Summit program. A team of teachers and school leaders from SHMS spent two weeks in training in California in preparation for Summit implementation. The program, which is computer based, was described as a personalized learning initiative that would enable students to become self-directed learners with the skills they’ll need to succeed later in life.

Mathias told the school board parents had been patient with the new program but continued to have questions and concerns after the school’s October open house.

“We are the only grade in Worcester County and one of only two in Maryland [using Summit],” she said. “We have very little information about how this curriculum relates to the Maryland state approved curriculum.”

Though her questions were not answered during Tuesday’s meeting, in an interview Thursday education officials said they would be hosting several Summit information sessions in the coming weeks. Principal Chris Welch said most parent concerns with the program stemmed from a lack of information.

“Maybe we haven’t done the best job communicating,” she said.

Nevertheless she believes in the program and says it was implemented because it fits in perfectly with the school system’s strategic plan and its digital conversion and personalized learning goals.

Furthermore, because it’s being piloted in sixth grade, which has a core group of experienced teachers, it can be adjusted and tweaked when necessary. Welch said the average sixth-grade teacher at SHMS had 20 years of teaching experience. They know what works and what doesn’t.

“We have the flexibility to do what we know is right,” Welch said.

Brittany Tignor, library media specialist at SHMS, said the Summit program was broken into three parts — personalized learning, projects and mentoring. Children work on content area skills independently during personalized learning time, they apply their skills on a larger level for projects and they receive mentoring each week.

“That allows teachers to focus on academic goals and look at personal factors that may or may not be contributing,” she said.

Tignor said the primary worry she’d heard from parents was that students would be on the computer too much because of Summit.

“They’re concerned their child is going to be on the computer eight hours a day,” she said. “That is absolutely not the case. Some of the content is delivered online but a lot of what they’re doing is on paper.”

While teachers like Tignor have seen the program benefitting individual students, its success as a whole will be measured at the end of the school year.

According to John Quinn, the school system’s chief academic officer, Summit has produced breakthrough results in California. He stressed that its effectiveness in Worcester County would be monitored at several levels.

“From a district perspective we’re interested in making sure no harm is done and we’re getting the results we anticipated,” he said.

He believes that through its personalized learning, the program will increase engagement and in turn achievement for students.

“At the end of the year, we’ll look at our PARCC scores and see if this changes the curve,” he said.

In addition, the school system will survey students and collect feedback from parents throughout the course of the year.

“If we don’t see radical changes or if we see anything negative Mrs. Welch is ready to shut the program down,” he said.

Quinn continues to expect good results, however. During a school visit Thursday, he was impressed with the level of engagement he saw among Snow Hill’s sixth graders.

“We want to make them better thinkers,” he said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.