April 27. 2014 9:24PM

Student ‘leveling’ gets a hard look in Manchester

New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER — School district administrators are moving forward with plans that could put an end to “leveling,” the widely established practice of placing students into classes of varying rigor, from basic to advanced.

The concept was presented to the school board’s Curriculum and Instruction Committee last week by Assistant Superintendent David Ryan, who referred to it was “de-tracking.”

Ryan acknowledged that the trend is controversial, but that it was especially needed in Manchester. The city has come under federal review for disparities between white students and minorities, in particular blacks and Latinos who make up a growing proportion of its student body.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced a settlement that requires the district to take concrete steps to boost the enrollment of black, Latino and English-learning students in Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

“The prejudice is always the most delicate part,” Ryan told the panel. “When you identify the student roster by race code for enrollment in a course, it’s very clear that African-American and Latino students dominate the lowest levels, whereas your caucasian and, in some cases, Asian students dominate the higher levels.”

Ryan continued, “It’s always a chicken-or-the-egg thing. Did tracking create this, or is it because African-American and Latino students struggle with learning? The National Research Council has produced volumes that defy the notion that ability to learn is a gene-oriented issue.”

Ryan said he anticipated there would be push-back against de-tracking not only from the parents of high-achieving students, but teachers who have grown comfortable teaching level-based courses.

Ryan gave the presentation alongside Superintendent Debra Livingston, who also expressed support for the shift away from advanced-track courses.

While leveling has been the subject of debate in the past, the presentation last week may have represented the first time district officials have directly advocated doing away with the system.

Ward 1 board member Sarah Ambrogi said she appreciated the goal of de-tracking, but she said the district needed to go slow and communicate with parents.

“There’s a lot of time and history that goes behind tracking,” she said. “I’m not against going in a different direction, but I think it will be like turning a major ship around. I think we need to think in terms of a pilot program.”

Ward 6 board member Robyn Dunphy, who in the past has staked out more traditional positions relative to her colleagues, said she supported doing away with leveling. “Mill Falls Charter School, Montessori — that’s the way they do this is,” she said. “Each child has their own plan; they go at their own pace; they’re all in the same classroom — and it works.”

The administration isn’t’ seeking approval from the board at this time, Ryan told the committee, but support to “try out a non-leveling situation in one of our middle schools and report back.”

Ryan did not offer details of the plan, and he did not respond to a follow-up request from the New Hampshire Union Leader for more information.

The consensus on the committee was to allow the administration to move forward with the plan.