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Debate to continue next month on requirements for graduation

Board member calls for a need to change at Benton Community

By JIM MAGDEFRAU, Star-Press editor

KEYSTONE – A debate on choices that Benton Community students have for courses took place last Wednesday night when the Benton Community Board of Directors approved the proposed course guide for next school year.

James Bieschke, high school principal, explained there are minimal changes in the course guide. The main changes are new names for some of the concurrent courses offered. The concurrent courses used to be called “dual” courses, or courses for which students receive both high school and college credit.

The debate came when school board member Terry Harrington questioned requiring students to take “cluster” courses. Benton for several years has had courses divided into different career paths and clusters. Bieschke said there are several choices for students in these cluster areas, so they can be exposed to different areas of study they might not otherwise be exposed to.

Harrington felt the cluster requirements took choices away from students who need other courses for their career path, especially with the Iowa Core Curriculum calling for more required courses. “Core requirements have changed, and we haven’t changed on the cluster classes. That was maybe a good idea 10 years ago, but you never had all these other classes required.”

He also urged the school to mandate a meeting between the guidance counselor, student and parents in seventh grade, and have them sign an affidavit on which courses the student needs to take. He said this makes the student and parents more responsible for the courses taken by the student. He said he heard the idea at a seminar from someone who was principal of the year in Kansas.

Harrington explained, a class has about 20 percent in advanced placement (AP) courses, and 20 percent served by special education. That leaves 60 percent in the middle with fewer choices. He felt these students should have the chance to take the advanced classes. “They’re not all going to get A’s in this class we’re talking about. They might only get a C. But it’s my belief, as the board of education, that it should be their choice. There should be equal opportunity. This is America … We’re not giving that 60 percent in the middle the opportunity to sign up for that AP class.”

“As things change, students need to know different things. And it’s going to keep changing,” Harrington said. “If we just stay in the same rut, we’re not changing.”

Bieschke urged the board to look at the cluster classes offered. “Those students have a lot of choices,” Bieschke said.

Board president Brenda Schanbacher said the cluster class requirement was a “hiccup” in her sons’ educational planning and direction. Bieschke said cluster classes have been waived in the past.

Harrington said most people think every school requires the cluster classes, when it is just a Benton requirement. He felt there was no need for this requirement since the increase in core curriculum courses.

Bieschke pointed out 56 block classes are required for graduation. Only four are the required cluster classes. “It’s a pretty small percent,” said Bieschke of the requirement.

“We need a change here,” Harrington said. “How else are we going to raise our test scores if we don’t provide the middle part of our school the opportunity. The middle part of our school is not getting the same opportunity as the top part of our school. Once you get behind, you stay behind.”

Bieschke disagreed, saying the school provides a lot of opportunities and support for all students.

Board member Dan Voss suggested looking at this at a work session next month. Superintendent Gary Zittergruen added the board has the authority to set graduation credits and requirements at the regular meeting. “You have that right as a board,” Zittergruen told the board.

In determining classes, Harrington said, “The parents and the student should be the first to please. It’s their education. Ultimately, it should be the student’s choice, after the core curriculum. The rest of this is Benton’s idea. This idea is from a long time ago, and an awful lot of things have changed.”

One of the things that have changed, Harrington added, is the start of academics at Kirkwood Community College.

“I have absolutely no problem in looking at the cluster requirements,” Bieschke said. “I do have beliefs and think that it is good, and that students need to be exposed to different areas.”

Bieschke was concerned that action would be taken as soon as January, saying, “There’s a lot that goes into graduation requirements and a lot of legwork that should be done before any kind of a vote takes place in January.”

Bieschke advised, “We can say all we want about the parents, but there’s something also to say about the people who are trained in education and their input into this, and to talk to our teachers about this, because there is going to be a lot of strong feelings about this.”

Harrington answered, “A lot of teachers are teaching the same course, and you know what? If you don’t change what you’re teaching sometimes, you have to retrain. This has been a way that some teachers keep their job, because somebody’s required to take it. It’s going to require different teachers and maybe retraining by other teachers. As students change, teachers need to change. As needs change, students need to change.”

He added, “The middle 60 percent, the way I see it, they’re just put into a file.”

“A lot of parents don’t realize it. They think this is the way it has to be run. That’s not true. It’s how WE run this school – the board of education.”

As for the mandatory meeting for students and parents, board member Brian Strellner questioned how many parents would show up.

Harrington replied, “It’s a requirement. It isn’t a choice.”

UPDATED December 23, 2008 10:57 AM

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