Warwick Public Schools are in the midst of a big transition regarding how they educate elementary students in science curriculum, which has generated both high praise regarding the new program’s merits and scathing criticism from some educators who believe the transition has left other students underserved in the transition process.
The program – Guiding Education in Math and Science Network (GEMS-Net) – is a comprehensive partnership between the University of Rhode Island and 13 state public school districts that delivers high-quality science and math curricula to students while also providing ongoing support and professional development to better guide teachers on how to instruct that curricula.
Warwick began its transition over this past summer, when eight full-time elementary science teachers were laid off during widespread budget cuts that extended throughout the district in attempts to close an $8.1 million deficit.
The move was not only fiscal in nature, but also demonstrated a commitment to a new methodology of science instruction – one that moved away from having dedicated elementary science teachers whose job was solely to teach the subject once a week, and work towards a model where K-5 students get science instruction as a regular part of their education throughout the week.
No small factor in the decision to change the method – which had been in place since the Space Race of the 1960s – was Warwick’s proficiency rating in science, which at 36 percent of 4th graders being proficient is significantly lower than the state average of 40 percent.
“When the state starts to measure us against other districts, we don’t do very well,” said School Committee member David Testa during Tuesday night’s meeting, where GEMS-Net presented a preliminary report on its first year within Warwick. “Then, the question has to be why aren't we doing well?”
Currently, the district has full GEMS-Net involvement only in their 3rd and 4th grade elementary classes. The reason, according to administration, is simply a matter of cost. It costs about $40,000 to implement a GEMS-Net partnership per grade level. The plan was initially to prototype the program only in third grade, but additional funding through Title IV allocations allowed the school to expand the release to the 4th grade as well.
What that investment buys is comprehensive professional development (PD) days prior to the school year on how to teach the GEMS-Net model, which is aligned with Common Core standards and strives to actively engage students in scientific processes, building skills like deductive reasoning and observation-based problem solving, rather than simply having them passively memorize scientific theories and terminology from text books.
Grade three teachers received three days of extensive professional development, and grade four teachers received four days, and teachers were provided stipends for this professional development. The core of GEMS-Net mission is to not only provide the initial PD, but to continuously support educators throughout the year on how to instruct their science lessons and experiments by doing presentations in classrooms and being available to answer questions at any time.
“This is a learning process for teachers as well,” said Caroline Stabile, Assistant Director of GEMS-Net. “All teachers come back for professional development on a regular basis each year so we can continue to support and continue to grow and give teachers a chance to grow their professional skills as well… It is our responsibility to do whatever it takes to make this work for you and your students.”
Unfortunately, as only two grade levels are currently afforded the full opportunities provided by the GEMS-Net program, that means that three other grade levels (and kindergarten) are in the midst of an awkward phase of the transition where teachers are still expected to teach the GEMS-Net curriculum without an identical amount of training.
Those who have received the full training sang its praises during Tuesday’s meeting.
“[GEMS-Net] has helped me figure out how to teach science,” said Holliman third grade teacher Suzanne Warren. “I have felt completely supported.
“But I've had about 21 hours of training at this point,” she continued.
This isn’t to say that teachers in grades 1, 2 and 5 have been given no training in the new program whatsoever, but it is certainly much less than what teachers in grades 3 and 4 receive. Without the full financial support, these grade level teachers get only one day of training prior to the school year as part of their routine PD.
While all grade level teachers have access to online GEMS-Net materials, including tutorial videos on how to set up experiments and teach science units, according to Warwick Teachers’ Union president Darlene Netcoh, these supports have been wholly inadequate to prepare teachers outside of grades 3 and 4 to implement the challenging GEMS-Net curriculum – and the administration has not adequately addressed this reality, resulting in confusion and frustration.
“This district has lived up to its motto – fire, ready, aim. Once again, the administration is building a plane while flying it and going from 0 to 90 and getting a speeding ticket in the process,” she said during an extensive testimony before the school committee following the presentation. “This district's treatment has been disrespectful to the teachers and harmful to the students they serve.”
Netcoh cited correspondence she received from teachers outlining confusion regarding the science kits they received. Complaints ranged from kits lacking clear instructions, to the administration requiring teachers bring in materials from home – such as potato peels or a piece of luggage – or scrounging for plant and leaf matter underneath freshly fallen snow to facilitate a biosphere for worms.
There were also issues, according to Netcoh, regarding available instruction materials. Some kits came with only one teacher textbook and one student textbook, while others relied entirely on GEMS-Net’s online instructions – however elementary grades do not yet have one-to-one Chromebooks, so materials and instructions needed to be shared among classrooms and between students.
Netcoh decried the lack of true professional development assisting teachers with the new endeavor, and expressed concerns about how teachers would have to find time to prepare for science curricula at the expense of their other teaching obligations.
“We see teachers of grades 3 and 4 receiving extensive training, as well they should. But the teachers in grades 1, 2 and 5 should be receiving this training as well, not being told to go watch a video,” she said. “When are teachers supposed to do all of this preparation for brand new investigations that have now been dumped into their laps? What parts of their ELA, math and social studies curricula should they neglect? What other duties to their students and their own families should they neglect when they're watching hours of videos?”
Hearing this kind of outcry from teachers about not being able to adequately understand and implement the GEMS-Net curriculum without more support, Warwick administrators worked with GEMS-Net, who agreed in February outside of their original agreement to expand the professional development opportunities to all grade level teachers before or after classes. Attending these sessions would not provide teachers a stipend, however.
Regardless, Warwick’s Director of Curriculum Wendy Amelotte said on Wednesday that many principals and teachers from elementary schools have taken advantage of the available training, and that the plan has been to incorporate all elementary grade levels into the full fold of GEMS-Net, but the budget situation has complicated that process.
“Clearly, I would support all of our teachers having full access to the partnership,” she said. “It is just a matter of time...My vision for Warwick is to not just be at the state average but to be one of the leading school districts in the state.”
School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus said that every year where some grade levels have access to the high-quality curriculum while others don’t is a disservice to the students.
“We need to get our act together. Because every year counts for our kids,” she said. “I know there's budget woes, but we have to find a way...I think we have to be more thoughtful when we roll out new programs about how we’re going to do that and accommodate teachers.”