Larger houses not the best structure, teachers say10/23/08

Oct. 23, 2008

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

With larger class sizes, new students and different team teaching dynamics, the five-teacher teams at Williston Central School have faced challenges adjusting to change in the first months of school.

The Williston School Board listened to Full House teacher Al Fletcher and District Principal Walter Nardelli give updates at its Oct. 15 meeting on how the larger houses are coping so far.

Fletcher said the first two months of school have been difficult in figuring out how to manage a larger student body within the dynamics of a five-teacher team. Most teams have four teachers.

“I would say we still haven’t hit our stride,” Fletcher said. “We knew there would be changes this year, but we’re feeling like we’re trying to do too many things.”

Full House has more eighth graders than other houses, and Swift House has a greater number of fifth graders. The new Pinnacle House, which has six lower house teachers, has an extra class worth of first, second, third and fourth graders.

With the larger number of students, it hasn’t been easy getting to know everyone, Fletcher said. He added that resources are stretched and the house’s teaching assistant has been putting in an amazing amount of hours helping in the transition.

“I don’t see a whole lot of positives in a five-person team,” Fletcher said.

Nardelli agreed the change hasn’t been easy for teachers and students in the larger houses.

“I think the amount of change was a lot more than people expected,” Nardelli added.

Fletcher said it’s been difficult organizing classes within the house’s five-person team. He said different teachers are licensed for certain subjects, sometimes causing problems in deciding who teaches what. Fletcher is licensed to teach social studies, as is teacher John Duncan, who joined Full House after Verve House was disbanded last school year. Duncan is also licensed in science, English and math.

Nardelli said he’d heard similar complaints in regards to team dynamics and class size from other larger houses, and has asked for input from Full, Swift and Pinnacle Houses.

Among the positives of the new house structures was incorporation of different teaching styles, more diversity among students and the opportunity to get to know more students, Nardelli said.

But while meeting new people was seen as a positive, forming a close bond with them proved to be more difficult, Nardelli said. It takes time to build relationships, and that time isn’t available, he added.

“How important the relationship factor was in Williston was underestimated,” Nardelli said.

Fletcher agreed, saying his team was able to build a strong “sense of house” in the past several years.

“We’re missing some of that and we’re realizing just how critical that is,” Fletcher said. “We do feel that need of equity and sense of school, but a lot of what makes Williston is the house system.”

Nardelli reported some teachers said there was less space, less time to plan the day or work one-on-one with students, and a lack of chemistry.

“Just because you put five or six people together, it doesn’t mean you have a strong team,” Nardelli said.

School Board member Holly Rouelle said the bigger class sizes seemed “contradictory” to what the board considered best practices in teaching. Fletcher agreed, stating “smaller is better.”

While other houses have either 26 or 27 eighth graders, Full House has 31. Swift House, which took on more fifth graders over the summer, has 33 fifth graders. Nardelli said the administration tried to keep a balance in the student ratios, but it wasn’t always possible.

“When you start moving kids around, you start losing the balance,” Nardelli said.

Rouelle, whose son is one of the 31 eighth graders in Full House, said while she understood the pressure teachers were facing, it was important to remember students were “struggling” in the configuration, as well.

Fletcher said it wouldn’t be a good idea to make any major changes to his house’s setup or to the school’s current configuration this year since students have already experienced enough change. He said he welcomed the work the Conceptual Frameworks Committee is doing to reconsider configuration for the next school year and beyond.

“Our house is looking at this as a temporary situation,” Fletcher said. “It’s not something we want to see continue.”

Fletcher said teachers, not yet involved with the Frameworks Committee, would soon be frequenting the meetings to give their input on configuration. For now, Fletcher said he and his team’s primary goal is to give students the best possible education.

“We need to just educate the children and get through the year,” Fletcher said.