Monday night’s school board included honors for state Color Guard competitors and a number of routine business items, but the main event was a spirited continuation of the debate on the CSCOPE curriculum.
The meeting opened with a presentation to Felicia Patterson (who took first place in the state color guard Rifle Solo competition) and Gwen Popejoy, who placed second in Sabre Solo). Dustin Riley, of Owner’s Building Resource in Austin, reported on progress at Llano Elementary (work on the old cafeteria is complete; furniture should arrive next week) and at Yellow Jacket Stadium (painting continues on the bleachers as the weather allows, to be followed by aluminum installation). CFO Jo Ann Williams reported that tax collections are $130,000 above budget, but the net effect will be “pretty much zero” because of increased “Robin Hood” payments and decreased state aid.
The debate began with the “audience participation” of junior high school coach and history teacher Ricky Newman, whose contract has not been renewed for next year. He told how he had been recruited for the job based on previous successes, but how he became increasingly concerned by the flaws in CSCOPE and its implementation here in the Llano ISD. He told how some of his students were woefully unprepared for the lessons mandated by CSCOPE and how 80% of his class had failed a test on European history, how he had reverted to his previous “lecture” method to go back over the material (instead of using the “completely student-oriented” CSCOPE lessons) and how “the kids came through beautifully” on the essay test which followed. He felt that because of his objections to CSCOPE, administrators “watched me closely,” and he was written up twice for minor infractions before learning that his contract would not be renewed. Coach Newman used up his allotted five-minute speaking time before he finished making his case, but his frustration with administration and CSCOPE was very clear.
Local veterinarian Dr. Jim Jenkins was the next speaker, and he calmly outlined a number of objections to the curriculum and its implementation. He told the board that a number of his friends are teachers. “I think you just heard from Coach Newman the frustration that many or most of the teachers share,” he told the board, “but most are afraid to talk for fear of losing their jobs or hurting their resumes.” “CSCOPE is running a lot of good teachers out of Llano,” he continued, singling out the implementation of the curriculum for critcism. “We need flexibility; we’ve got to do something to retain teachers and encourage kids.” Karen Phillips thanked the board for taking time to look into the problems, but seconded many of Dr. Jenkins’ concerns. Letitia McCasland mentioned a scheduled meeting of administrators, and asked Superintendent Dennis Hill to “give us some insight into Friday’s meeting.”
Before Superintendent Hill’s response, Board President Ronnie Rudd expressed regrets for the time constraints, and asked audience members to send emails or letters if they had further concerns. Superintendent Hill told the audience that he agreed with Dr. Jenkins “on a number of points,” and reminded them that he and his wife had experienced some frustration with their son’s homework during CSCOPE’s introduction. He pointed out, however, that the administration was “on the horns of a dilemma,” and asked, “What kind of a curriculum can we use to give kids a reasonable chance to succeed” (in an era of increasingly rigorous standards)? “We must do everything we can to prepare these kids for what I know is coming.” He told the audience that administrators had held a 3-hour meeting with even “some tears shed in this room” last Friday; that he has written and distributed a summary, and is waiting for feedback before making it public. He told teachers present in the meeting room, “I hope to lower your level of concern, but keep a sense of urgency.”
Addressing specific concerns, Hill explained that he monitors programs to see if they are working, and has no plans to stop. “I don’t evaluate teachers,” he said. He accepted blame for any problems with implementation of the program, stressing that the board and his administrative team have done their jobs well, and adding that the results have been generally good. Almost across the board, test results are showing a positive trend; Llan1o ISD is ahead of the state and area averages, and has improved on its own performance over the last two years.
Superintendent Hill was followed by a series of principals and teachers voicing their enthusiastic support for CSCOPE, and reporting positive results from its implementation. Several praised the “5E Model” of teaching (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate), another recent innovation at Llano ISD which Superintendent Hill believes is a source for some of the angst surrounding CSCOPE. “If we want to improve student performance,” he said, “we can change curriculum (what we teach) and instructional style (how we teach it). We’re trying to change both at once.” The 5E model is basically learning by doing. “It’s “the antithesis of the old ‘sit and git’ method of instruction,” Hill says. “It’s very hands-on and engaging. It’s also different from what most teachers are used to.”
High school principal James Scott spoke in support of the new method. “I don’t recall a single worksheet or lecture from 5th grade,” he said, telling of an interactive lesson on electricity that he still remembers clearly. He also pointed out that textbooks could not keep up with the rapid changes in subjects and standards, and said, “I like the idea of a curriculum that covers everything my kids need to learn.”
Annette Moresco, of Packsaddle Elementary, was accompanied by a group of teachers who told of positive results from CSCOPE and 5E. Their presentation was supplemented by a Power Point presentation which highlighted some of the successes of the new program. They reported that kids are very interested in the new “hands-on” lessons. “You can see lights come on,” one teacher said. Another reported that CSCOPE made it possible to provide a math lesson in Spanish for a student who did not yet speak English; another noted that her feedback from last year had led to changes in this year’s curriculum. “You can’t do that with a textbook,” she said.
Three more teachers accompanied junior high principal Nicole Smith, who told the audience that there are “a lot of people loving what’s going on.” She introduced an 8th-grade science teacher who praised the flexibility of CSCOPE’s lesson plans. “It’s like a skeleton,” she said. “You can’t take any of the bones out, but you can add as much meat as you want.” That flexibility makes CSCOPE challenging for even her gifted students, while she can actually go back to previous levels to pull lessons for students who have fallen behind. Another teacher explained that, while teaching in Austin before CSCOPE was introduced, she had planned to home school her daughter. Now she has changed her plans. “I can’t do any better than CSCOPE math,” she explained, “and CSCOPE science is awesome,” with labs twice a week. And another teacher told the crowd that “We have meaningful learning” with CSCOPE. “We’re not just teaching them how to take tests,” she said. “We’re teaching them how to think.”
Junior high principal Nicole Smith reported that attendance at her school has risen to 96 percent, and that now “they want to come to school.”
Board president Ronnie Rudd acknowledged that CSCOPE had been hurriedly implemented, but said that the administration was “tweaking” the curriculum and would continue to do so. “We don’t have a viable alternative,” he said. “We have to play by the rules, and each year, standards get ratcheted up. We didn’t create the textbook problem.” He told the audience that the district cannot afford the “terrible consequences” of an “Unacceptable” rating. He pointed out that the board monitors teacher turnover (“We don’t like to lose anyone,” he said), and contrary to some rumors, Llano’s turnover is lower than the state average.
Board member Gerald Kaspar told how worried his wife had been, as a third grade teacher, about CSCOPE, and how happy she had been at the students’ response. She was delighted one day to overhear a boy saying to his friend, “Wasn’t math fun today?” Board secretary Becky Robinson closed out the debate by saying, “I think we’re very lucky to have administrators and teachers who are so passionate about what they are doing.”
In the final minutes of the meeting, the board approved a new copier lease which will save $200 per month, approved textbooks recommended by a special committee, and hired three new teachers for the junior high school. They are teacher/coaches Kyle Chance Vineyard and Ryan Maney, and art teacher Amanda Burchett.