School Committee logo '[HGI is] not a zero-sum game.'

-- Superintendent Homan

Some say move to heterogeneous grouping is too soon

UPDATED April 21: In the most deeply divided vote on any matter in almost three years, the School Committee voted, 4-3, Thursday, April 14, to approve ninth-grade English classes with students of perceived different abilities in the same classroom. The vote took place after presentations, questions and discussions lasting nearly two hours.

Bill Hayner, Liz Exton, Paul Schlichtman and Kirsi Allison-Ampe favored the plan, while Len Kardon, Jeff Thielman and Jane Morgan opposed it.

The last 4-3 vote was in June 2019 on the contract of then-Superintendent Kathleen Bodie.

Thursday night was also the first meeting in almost two years or possibly longer in which a recess was taken, even though many previous meetings lasted longer than this one did.

The plan, Heterogeneous Grouping Initiative or HGI, eliminates so-called “leveling” or “tracking.” A pilot-program, set for two years, is to begin in September for 9th grade English Language Arts classes only. The approach has strong support from district administrators, Arlington High School Principal Matthew Janger, 15 of the 18 English language arts teachers at AHS, many students and many local residents. It was also endorsed by the town’s Human Rights Commission and SEPAC, a community-based organization that represents special-education families.

What HGI plan would do

HGI calls for smaller class sizes (18 to 22 students, with an average class size of 20); some team teaching; more common preparation time, training and collaboration opportunities among teachers; and a regular presence by special-education experts.

9th-grade ELA HGI report, plan

Additions to 2022 HGI Study Team Proposal

Sources: Agenda documents about HGI >> 

The Plan

* English 9 ELA will be heterogeneously grouped;

* Students will choose honors or advanced level with opportunities to change their selection several weeks into the year and at the semester;

* Transcript and GPS weight will reflect the chosen level;

* 18 sections = Three sections for each of six periods (capped class size 20-21);

* Four teams will include co-taught sections:

* Common planning period (1x designated per week, 4x other opportunities during regular planning time, to be used at teachers’ discretion); and

* Honors work entails a higher level of complexity and sophistication in expectations and work on all standards.

Supporters say HGI will enhance learning and increase motivation for all involved while promoting diversity, equity, inclusion and opportunity. They also note that this format has been successfully used elsewhere, including some neighboring municipalities.

Freshman English students will represent different perceived levels of ability but will not include profoundly disabled students. Any given student may opt to take part at the advanced or at the honors level by choosing assignments of increased complexity, independence and sophistication.

“[HGI is] not a zero-sum game. It doesn’t give to one student at the expense of another,” said Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Homan. “We are most motivated when we are most challenged. All students are capable of higher-level thinking.”

3 updates on pilot due

She said updates on the pilot will be given to the committee and to the community thrice yearly, in October, January and May.

Janger said: “It is more appropriate for all to be taught together” in a classroom with different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, English language learners and people with individual education plans. “Teachers believe that this is in the best interest of all students. We are asking for the opportunity to try.”

However, the dissenters had their doubts, for a variety of reasons.

Kardon wants more planning

“I can’t support this one tonight. The research has been oversold,” said Kardon,  referring to a 29-page pro-HGI document including links to outside studies that was issued some weeks ago by the APS administration. “We have to be careful.We need more rigorous planning.” Contacted later by YourArlington, he described the document's citation of a 30-year-old study as particularly irrelevant in its complaints of struggling students being typically served only by ill-prepared teachers.

Kardon said at the meeting that social-media posts and anonymous comments demonstrate that many residents oppose the HGI plan -- and suggested that social pressure may have discouraged more of them from coming forward.

He posited that a slippery slope might emerge, which could theoretically eventually result in eliminating advanced-placement courses in academia or of the varsity distinction in competitive athletics.

Thielman cites finances, timing

Thielman objected on financial and timing grounds. He said APS spends far less per child than other districts that use the equivalent of HGI. “[There are] not enough resources in our budget to support this the way it should be supported,” he said. He added that “an experiment on 375 students” is “too large of a group to experiment on.” 

Thielman also said it was too soon for Arlington to make major educational changes given the continuing pandemic -- and simultaneously too late in the district’s own economic calendar. “I take exception to the process after budget adoption,” he said. “We have no recourse.”

Morgan appeared to believe that the otherwise worthy plan was pushed through prematurely. “I’m not going to support the proposal as presented. It lacks humility and compromise and engagement with the community.” She mentioned being concerned about a “very very new administration,” possibly referring to Homan’s tenure of less than 10 months. Morgan said she does support the overall intent of HGI and wishes it well now that it appears a fait accompli. “I desperately hope I’m wrong. I hope it is a great success.” 

In other business: 

  • The committee unanimously approved Alison Elmer to be promoted to a newly created position of assistant superintendent of student services and as such will continue overseeing special education while also leading counseling, nursing and social work. Committee members concurred that Elmer is knowledgeable, collaborative and a good manager, that the new title is common elsewhere and that no better candidate would likely to have been found via open recruitment. Contacted later by YourArlington, Homan said, "As part of the FY23 budget proposal and to offset the cost of this new role, we eliminated the position for Director of Special Education. We also added a .5 coordinator and .5 team chair role to provide additional SPED leadership as Alison takes on new responsibilities. As she gets started in her role, she can assess whether additional structures or supports will be needed for the new Office of Student Services." Elmer is director of special education at an annual salary of $158,100 and will earn $170,000 per year as assistant superintendent of student services as of July 1.  Read her contract >> 
  • Covid-19 incidence in the public schools is less than in the town but still troubling, Homan reported. “There is a surge happening right now,” she said. Infection numbers at APS are reported each Friday and are as follows for the past few weeks: 50 as of April 14, 64 on April 8, 60 on April 1 and 59 on March 25. The district continues to test students regularly, and it imposes masking and quarantining when and where warranted.
  • Ottoson Middle School will have three projects competing at the national level for this year’s National History Day, Homan reported, also commending history teacher Jason Levy, who has been nominated for recognition in his own right. Read agenda documents about Levy and enrollment >>
  • Homan said the district seeks to fill four prominent positions. An assistant principal at Brackett School and a districtwide director of social studies are needed to succeed those leaving those posts for jobs elsewhere. Also sought are a director of visual arts and a director of wellness, with those now in those positions set to retire.
  • The Educational Collaborative is finally completely on track for shutdown, as it should be, Hayner said. “[At] EDCO, all, and I do mean all, agreed to pay their assessments” to complete dismantling the no-longer-needed regional organization. He was referring to neighboring Lexington, which was the final holdout.
  • The committee went into closed session at 9:48 p.m., with no decisions expected to be made that night.
  • In a brief meeting that preceded the regular meeting, Exton was elected chair, Thielman secretary. Allison-Ampe and Schlichtman were both nominated for vice chair, receiving three votes each, Kardon abstaining. The position was declared vacant; the process to fill the position is to be taken up at another time.-
 Watch the ACMi video of the April 14 School Committee meeting:


April 1, 2022: Face masks are now optional on town's public-school buses

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Judith Pfeffer was published April 16, 2022, updated April 17, to provide historical context on the rarity of a 4-3 vote at School Committee, and updated April 21,, to provide comments by the superintendant about a recent promotion and from a committee member about a district document on heterogeneous grouping.