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updated: 4/20/2014 6:35 AM

Groups raise concerns about Dist. 203 learning support changes

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Naperville Unit District 203 officials who are proposing changes to the way educators support struggling students and challenge advanced students are hearing concerns from a variety of camps.

For starters, there's a group of current and former educators, parents and students involved with the LEAP program, a form of early literacy intervention the district has been using for about 25 years to help young students learn to read.

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The "Keep LEAP" folks say the program of pulling students out of the classroom for 35 minutes of daily one-on-one reading help has proved successful, so it shouldn't be thrown out in favor of a new method of providing support within the classroom, which they say has not been thoroughly tested.

"Reading is the foundation from which all other learning occurs," said Sharon Bitzer, a former LEAP tutor whose children attended District 203 schools. "If children don't have a strong foundation in reading, how can we ever expect them to tackle other core areas of the curriculum?"

There's also a group of parents of gifted and talented students, organized under the umbrella of STAGE, which stands for Supporters of Talented and Gifted Education. STAGE past President Sonia Harmon says her group is concerned the needs of advanced students will fall to the wayside as educators spend more time bringing struggling students up to par.

"Our biggest concern is how we can know with confidence that the gifted and advanced learners will receive support in this new model," Harmon said.

And then there are classroom teachers and principals who next year will be on the front lines of fully implementing a curriculum aligned with the new Common Core state standards. School board President Jackie Romberg says teachers have told her they are "very excited about the new model" of having increased ability to assist or challenge students within the classroom.

The proposed changes would affect students in kindergarten through second grade and would require staffing changes approved by the school board.

Administrators have told board members the staffing changes are not proposed to save money, but to be what Superintendent Dan Bridges called the best way to "respond to student needs and monitor progress."

Children no longer would be taken away from their regular classroom for reading help or enrichment activities. Instead, assistants would provide the help or advanced learning they need within the classroom.

The district proposes laying off 31 full-time and 40 part-time assistants and replacing them with 48 full-time instructional assistants who would be trained to assist small groups of students, provide individual support or enrichment, conduct assessments to gauge skill levels, collaborate with teachers about student progress and monitor behavior.

"As I understand it, they want the instructional assistants in the classroom full-time," Romberg said. "I know this is not a financially driven proposal."

A vote on the staffing changes that could allow the new support and enrichment model to be implemented is scheduled for Monday during a board meeting at 7 p.m. in the administrative center, 203 W. Hillside Road.

Bridges said administrators are working to answer questions from board members and the community during a presentation before Monday's scheduled vote.

The board has been hearing from the public since proposed changes were announced Friday, March 28 -- the last day before spring break. Along with concerns about eliminating the LEAP reading assistance program or the practice of pulling out advanced students for small-group enrichment exercises, parents have said they are not satisfied with the district's communication about the potential shift in learning support.

"Going forward, the district staff must improve in their willingness to proactively engage parents and community groups in discovering questions, concerns, ideas and suggestions long before they ask for board approval or implement a major change," Harmon and other STAGE board members said in a letter to school board members. "Not only will this allow issues to be addressed upfront, but it establishes buy-in and creates a path for communication and meaningful partnership with stakeholders."

During the board's April 7 meeting, Bridges said, the administration "did not communicate well with other stakeholders." The superintendent has said the district will continue to inform community members and seek their input as it did during the "Future Focus" series of engagement sessions.

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