2009-10-08 / Front Page

NASA grant paves path for science education improvement

By Erin Tiernan

School administrators announced a $200,000 NASA appropriation for a Science and Math Scholars program at Lawn Avenue School – a program that administrators hope will boost not only student interest in science, but test scores, too.

The announcement was made during the Oct. 1 School Committee meeting, which also included the presentation of a detailed analysis of Jamestown student performance levels over the past year and a comparison of test results across the state.

In Rhode Island and in schools across New Hampshire and Vermont, student and teacher accountability is evaluated by the New England Common Assessment Program test, an annual standardized test that measures grade-level expectations in their respective states. The NECAP tests, which students are taking this week, evaluate school performance and shed light onto areas of curriculum that need improvement.

Jamestown School Department Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lukon said the results provide tangible information about what does and does not work for students.

According to the NECAP website, tests are administered at the beginning of the school year and measure the previous year’s learning – or the materials expected to be learned – before a child starts the next grade level.

In grades 3 through 8, and in grade 11, reading and math are evaluated; writing tests are administered in grades 5 and 8. Scores range from proficient with distinction (level 4) for students performing above grade-level expectations to proficient (level 3) for students meeting grade-level standards, partially proficient (level 2) for students with inconsistent performance and substantially below proficient (level 1) for students performing well below grade-level expectations.

Jamestown students achieved the highest improvement at the elementary level in the state among grade 4 students, whose scores increased by a little more than 25 percent.

Melrose School Principal Carole Melucci said the teachers had met to discuss the results and identify gaps in the curriculum.

“Teachers broke into grade- level teams, but even though we are working horizontally, I stressed the need to be working vertically,” she said. “What’s coming before, what’s coming after? What GSEs [grade-span expectations] aren’t being met?”

Melucci said Melrose teachers worked with a state education offi cial, who offered ideas on how to efficiently fill the gaps in curriculum.

NASA grant announced

Kathleen Almanzor, Lawn School principal, said grades 5 through 8 did not see any big increase, adding that eighth grade was “pretty abysmal across the state.”

She said science was the area most in need of improvement.

“Our work is ahead of us,” Almanzor said. “And we know it.”

She mentioned that the middle school science curriculum hadn’t been looked at in a long time, but that administrators and teachers will be addressing the problems.

She expressed hope for improvement, especially in math and science in the middle school grades, as the acceptance of a $200,000 NASA appropriation for the Science and Math Scholars Program was announced. The appropriation was awarded to the Jamestown Education Foundation on Sept. 30.

Over the course of the yearlong program, students in grades 6 through 8 will gain “field experience” by partnering with local businesses, organizations and universities to improve quality education and generate student interest in the sciences.

Some project ideas include collaborating with URI on an aquaculture program and with Shartner Farms on a hydroponics experiment.

The school department will be awarded an aquaculture tank, a weather station, a green house, solar panels and a mobile computer lab as part of the grant.

Dr. Lukon projected that the SAMS program would begin during the second half of the school year and added that a project manager will be employed to manage student field trips, complete progress reports required by NASA and seek outside funding to continue the program after the scope of the NASA-funded year ends next October.

Almanzor said the program will fit well into current grade-span expectations.

Mary Hall Keen, a JEF board member, said this program will bridge the gap between where Jamestown students currently stand and where they need to go to become more proficient in math and science.

“We’re taking the current [NECAP] scores as a baseline and we’re hoping to show real improvement, not just in their attitudes toward math and sciences, but in their actual scores,” Keen said. “We hope to create a model program that can be picked up and taken to any part of the country.”

Despite the program’s obvious benefits to students and the school department, School Committee Chairperson Cathy Kaiser said there are some possible negative ramifications.

She said the grant monies will cause a one-year spike in cost-perpupil figures, which could cause issues with the town council regarding next year’s budget.

George Zainyeh, a member of the board of advisors for JEF, said the NASA grant offers an opportunity to bring in outside resources and revenue not appropriated by the town council. He said the program “adds more value to the taxpayers, community and the school.”

New contract for JESPA

In other business, the school committee approved a new contract for the Jamestown Educational Support Personnel Association, which will be valid through 2011.

Chairperson Kaiser praised the hard work of JESPA and the school department for their collaborative efforts in negotiating a new contract that she says will be more effi cient for the school department.

Kaiser, who served on the subcommittee charged with negotiating the new contract, highlighted several major changes.

She said JESPA agreed to change its healthcare plan, which means higher deductibles for employees, but will result in savings for the district. All new employees are now expected to pay 15% of the cost of their medical benefits; this is no change for teacher assistants, but constitutes a jump in expenses for custodians, who previously paid only 5%.

Over the next two years, JESPA employees will see their added costs offset by salary increases. Applying some of the savings gained from JESPA’s healthcare concessions, the school department agreed that teacher assistants’ earnings will increase by $300 for the 2009/2010 academic year, and increase by $200 the next year. Custodians’ yearly wages will increase by $350 this year and $250 in the 2010/2011 school year.

“We benefit from the change in the health care,” Kaiser said. “We will have an ongoing savings from that and they [JESPA] benefit in terms of finding some money in a year when there was really no money to give.”

The new contract also mandates up to 20 hours of required professional development for teacher assistants, as well as other JESPA personnel.

In addition to required professional development, the educational stipend that is available to teacher assistants who complete a supplementary 20 hours of professional development increased by $50 to $450 for those with an associate’s degree. All teacher assistants holding bachelor’s degrees can now expect $700, instead of $600.

“It’s not a large number of people who have those degrees among that staff,” Kaiser said. “We value the advanced education and what it brings to the classroom, so we felt that was a good area in which to invest.”

Separately, committee member B.J. Whitehouse introduced changes to the district’s family and medical leave policy. He said most of the changes made to the document involved spelling and grammatical errors. Copies are available for public review at the Melrose Avenue School office.

The policy will be presented for approval at the next regular meeting on Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. in the Lawn Avenue School library.

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