Getting tough

Since the Center Grove school district is the largest in the county and at one time was ranked among the best in the state on standardized testing scores, parents expect a wealth of academic options, such as magnet programs and enrichment classes.

But about 20 parents said they have grown frustrated with the actual options for their children in the Center Grove school system.

More than 60 parents attended an academic forum at Center Grove this week and raised questions about large class sizes, expanding enrichment and high ability programming, tracking data through students’ academic careers, how parents can check their child’s testing or assessment data and whether Center Grove will offer high ability classes for middle school students.

Center Grove, the largest school district in Johnson County with nearly 8,000 students, conducted the forum as part of an overall plan to improve academically after scores on ISTEP and end-of-course assessments along with graduation rates have stayed nearly the same for years. At the same time, other schools in central Indiana have had their scores increase, which has dropped Center Grove’s statewide ranking. In 2012, Center Grove was ranked 11th in the state for its ISTEP scores. Last year, their statewide rank dropped to 40th.

But the academic forum did not answer all of parents’ questions, they said.

Parents said they are confused about what options are available to their children and what the effectiveness of the specialized high ability classes, the group who attended the forum said. For example, parent Jaci Beecher never got an answer during the forum as to the future of the enrichment programs, she said.

“Every parent’s concern is my concern,” Superintendent Richard Arkanoff said.

A group of parents who attended the forum this week said they have met with administrators, including Arkanoff and director of teaching and learning Jack Parker, this fall. But their concerns about their children’s academics, such as asking for smaller class sizes or more clarification about high-ability programs and future expansion of those programs, are not getting answered, parents including Beecher, Rajeev Jain, Shelley Salrin and Jessica Keaton said.

Now, they want to take their concerns to school board members, they said.

Arkanoff is encouraging parents to continue to work at the school level.

“99.9 percent of things can be addressed by the principal. If they want to talk about academics, they can talk to the principal, then talk to Dr. Parker,” Arkanoff said. “The school board is about policy, so really if parents want to make an impact, they need to be working at that school level.”

Salrin said she wants her daughter in high-ability courses, but in order to do that, she would need to send her to her third elementary school in three years, since those courses are only offered at Maple Grove or North Grove Elementary schools.

Jennifer Armstrong said she wants Center Grove to track how children are doing once they get done with those high-ability programs in elementary school. Data gleaned while her children went through the high-ability program wasn’t carried over to the middle school, Armstrong said, so she couldn’t see what instructional methods or teaching styles worked.

The answer they got from school officials: We’re looking into it.

Their focus has been on studying Center Grove’s curriculum and providing more help to teachers. Center Grove officials hired instructional coaches and are bringing in consultants to look at the high ability curriculum to see how students can earn higher scores. The Indiana Department of Education recommends that school districts study and revise their high ability curriculum and programming every five to nine years, so Center Grove is doing that this winter with the consultants, Parker said.

But Center Grove parents at the forum said the focus should be on improving the amount of programs available and reducing class sizes, not providing teachers with additional aides, they said.

Parents said they want to see a plan to expand the academic options currently available for their children, including adding more classes for students who score high on tests and can read beyond their grade level, and to lower class sizes, which they say are too high. They want the school to better track how students are doing as they move through middle school and high school, since officials said the data was too new for them to track effectiveness or predict trends in the past.

“You can do all the curriculum changes you want, you can hire instructional coaches and all of these things, but if you have class sizes of over 30 kids, that’s too much for your teachers,” Beecher said.

Parents said they want to see Center Grove focus on making sure their children are being challenged in class, either by making high ability courses more accessible to students or offering magnet programs, where high-scoring students stay within the same cluster of students all day, at every school. Currently, magnet programs are available at only two of the five elementary schools.

Enrichment students, or students who score high on tests but aren’t considered high ability students, make up about 30 percent of the elementary student population, while high ability students comprise between 2 and 4 percent of the school population, Parker said.

“We are committed to serving all of our students the best that we can,” Parker said.

But parents said they want more children to be accepted into those programs. They added they are confused about how students are picked for the enrichment classes, since no specific cut-off score has been set by administrators, they said. Teachers or administrators seem to pick how many students they have room for in the class, instead of how many actually hit a specific score on a high-achievement assessment given by the school district.

One parent, who moved with his daughter to Center Grove during the summer, met with the teacher and principal at the beginning of the year since his daughter had been working one year ahead on math at her previous year. He was told no high-ability math classes were available, so now she is bored in class, he said at the forum this week.

This week, Parker said there are high-ability classes available for elementary-aged students, and she should have been included in one.

“We certainly want all children to be challenged,” Parker said.

Another parent said her child is bored in class, and instead of putting him in a more challenging classroom, his teacher gave them worksheets to do at home, she said at the forum. But her child isn’t bored at home, he’s bored in class, she said.

Next year, the school district plans on making those programs more uniform among the elementary schools, Parker said.

Consultants will study the school district’s high-ability programming starting next week, and will present their recommendations for changes to school officials in February.

Administrators said they also are considering changing the enrichment program, which takes high-achieving elementary-aged students from the regular classroom into a separate room at their school. Next year, that whole program might change so it is uniform from elementary school to elementary school, Parker said.

Four out of the five elementary schools have one enrichment class per grade level, but Center Grove Elementary is going through a pilot program where students are given additional work instead of being separated from their classmates. For students who score high on gifted or high ability assessments, they can be grouped into a different program called extended learning, which is housed at Maple Grove Elementary and North Grove Elementary schools. The magnet programs mean the high ability students are grouped together all day, instead of working with children who may struggle in school.

School officials said they also are creating a more streamlined curriculum, so they can guarantee every student has the opportunity to succeed in the classroom, said Marcy Szostak, assistant director of curriculum.

“Next year, we look to be much more aligned in all of our programming,” Szostak said.

Parents’ questions will be sent to the school district’s broad-based planning committee, which includes administrators, teachers and parents who study the curriculum. The group meets about four times per year to discuss student growth and improvement. Parents are invited to the group by administrators or teachers, Parker said.

They look at the data and statistics for the school district, as well as the curriculum for Center Grove as a whole. Then, the planning committee will recommend curriculum changes to the administrators and the school board.

Salrin isn’t sure that whatever changes will be made will be enough to help her children’s academic career.

Last summer, her children were forced to move from Center Grove Elementary School to Sugar Grove Elementary School as part of redistricting. Salrin’s third-grader qualifies for the extended learning magnet program next year, where students stay with fellow high-ability learners all day long. But Salrin’s daughter would have to change schools again. To uproot her child again, forcing her to meet new teachers and become friends with new classmates again seems wrong.

She doesn’t understand why Center Grove does not have more options for her child.

“Center Grove almost treats high-ability as a burden,” Salrin said. “I’m left wondering what the future of the enrich program is.”

Parker said the enrichment program is not going away, but Salrin wonders what would happen if it isn’t improved. If the school district did get rid of the program, she would consider transferring her children to a neighboring school district, she said.

“To me, that’s almost going to be a deal breaker,” she said.

Issues concerning parents

Parents have shared concerns with administrators about their children’s education. Here is a quick list of all the topics parents are concerned about.

  • Large class sizes
  • Lack of uniform enrichment programming
  • Lack of continuous high ability programming throughout students’ academic careers
  • Not tracking data through students’ academic careers, and how parents can check their child’s data
  • Lack of high ability classes for middle school students

What's next?

Center Grove has community meetings scheduled to get more parent input and to inform them about the state of the school district:

7 p.m. Dec. 8, school board room at the Center Grove Education Services Center, 4800 Stones Crossing Road, Greenwood.

A second community forum will be in February, but the date has not been set.