Editor’s note: West Windsor-Plainsboro School District Superintendent David Aderhold has released an open letter to the community outlining the state of the district. An edited version of his report is below.

Superintendent David Aderhold

As educators, it is our collective responsibility to prepare students for a world that is shifting and that continues to evolve. Therefore, as an educational system, we must continue to change to meet that responsibility.

Making systemic change is healthy and is what great districts do. WW-P is one of those great districts. Our challenge is to prepare students for a world that we cannot envision or define by current constructs. If your children are to be successful as global citizens, they must be able to interact and work with those from a broad spectrum of cultures, religions, philosophical beliefs and social backgrounds.

Make no mistake: the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District is an excellent school district. While bringing awareness to specific issues or concerns is healthy, important and necessary, misinformation and mistruths about our educational program and its educators, through social media or other communications, is wrong.

The false public narrative that has been perpetuated by some has served to demean this amazing school district and school community, and it is not acceptable.

The facts cannot be ignored: WW-P is a beacon for educational excellence. Your children, our students, are watching and we have a collective responsibility to uphold a higher standard. In the following letter, I will provide a variety of examples showing how our students demonstrate excellence in education.

Research tells us that successful schools are characterized by dedicated educators, motivated students, involved parents, and supportive community. This partnership provides opportunities for our students to excel.

Student achievement on standardized tests, such as the SATs and AP exams, is a testament to the hard work of students, teachers, staff, and families. State and national rankings are important but are subjective. Regardless of the measures and the criteria, WW-P has continually been a flagship district over a myriad of years.

SAT scores

High School North ranked number 15 (third overall comprehensive high school) with an average SAT score of 1,317 (reading 652/math 665). High School South ranked number 14 (second overall comprehensive high school with an average SAT score of 1,321 (reading 654/math 667).

ACT

High School South was tied for number 12 in N.J. for the highest ACT score. In order to understand this ranking, we need to be aware that the top 10 schools are all application-based public academies and selective-based county vo-tech programs. High School North tied for number 19 behind several other public academies, Princeton, Tenafly, Chatham and Milburn High Schools.

If we remove all public academies from the list, High School South would be ranked number 1 and High School North would be ranked number 6 for comprehensive public high schools in N.J. for the ACT for the 2015–‘16 school year (the last data set released).

Midterm and final exams

In the 2015-’16 school year, I stated that we had “eliminated” midterm and final exams. I regret the use of the word “eliminate” as it set off a negative discourse on this change. While we removed exams periods, all academic departments continue to have quarterly exams and common assessments that are cumulative in nature.

This change was driven to remove the impact that a singular high stakes assessment could have on a student’s grades, which could contribute to a negative impact on the final grade. Midterm and final exams each were weighted as 10 percent of a student’s final score. In effect, this change simply shifted the weight of the exams into the 2nd and 4th quarter grades.

Given that final exams were administered at the very end of the school year, teachers were unable to provide feedback to students beyond the grade. Now students are demonstrating their learning during the quarterly exams and common assessments and teachers are able to give students more accurate and timely feedback to inform their progress and learning in the class. We continue to use feedback from quarterly and common assessments to inform teaching and learning.

Dual language immersion pilot program

In September, the board of education unanimously voted to support a pilot program in dual language immersion. The pilot will take place in two kindergarten classrooms beginning in the 2018-‘19 school year. In dual immersion programs, students learn content through both English and the target language, both of which are aligned with the district’s curriculum, and integrate academic content and language acquisition.

The pilot will be offered in Chinese and Spanish, with student and parent interest ultimately determining whether or not the program runs. We believe that students will benefit with enhanced cognitive skills, improved academic performance, and higher second language proficiency. Further, research has shown this model to be highly successful at not only teaching grade-level content but also at developing impressive levels of language proficiency.

Ultimately, a dual language immersion Program aligns with the district mission, is an action step toward our strategic goal of global citizenship supports the 21st century competencies and provides substantial intellectual, academic, and life benefits to our students at minimal cost.

Math redesign

The redesign of our upper elementary mathematics program is grounded in the belief that all learners should have access to rigorous, high-level mathematical content in an environment where risk-taking, deep conceptual understanding and growth mindset are the norm. To support this philosophical belief, we have introduced a math workshop approach to our instruction.

Math workshop structures provide the following: opportunities for math talk; support building math communities where risk-taking is the norm; and provide opportunities for students to work individually, in partnerships, in small groups and as a whole class to explore tasks and center activities that foster meaningful engagement. Math workshop provides structures for the teacher to facilitate learning and supports students’ reflections on their learning.

Depending on the content and goal, teachers may use whole group rich tasks, station or center activities (focused on a particular skill and designed for small group or partnership work), or work with individual students. Students begin and end the lesson together providing opportunities for students to reflect on their learning. The teacher utilizes ongoing assessments to continuously monitor and meet the needs of every student in the class and to ensure they are appropriately challenged and engaged.

The change to math workshop was grounded in the belief that many high ability and high-performing math students were underserved. Essentially, too many students were being denied access to rigorous mathematics instruction. The programmatic shift that began during the 2016-’17 school year and has expanded the number of students who now have access to accelerated and enriched math by including all 4th graders.

This year the expansion continues. Based on the belief that the end of grade 5 is a more developmentally appropriate time at which to identify students’ eligibility to participate in an accelerated mathematics sequence, all regular education 4th and 5th grade students will be provided with an enriched and rigorous mathematics curriculum in the classroom during the 2017-‘18 school year.

In late fall, WW-P will unveil the criteria for entrance into Grade 6 honors and accelerated mathematics, which will begin in 6th grade for the 2018 –’19 school year. As previously discussed in fall 2015, we believe 25-30 percent of current 5th grade students will become eligible for the honors and accelerated mathematics program.

Because of the typically high level of student achievement in WW-P, it is not unreasonable to expect larger numbers of students in our advanced mathematics courses than in most other districts. While some community members state that advanced or accelerated mathematics should be limited to only a few, we know that our students are capable of incredible levels of mathematical thinking. Advanced mathematics should not be for an exclusive few.

Based on evaluations of historical data, we believe we have underserved too many students for too long in advanced mathematics, and we will not allow the prevailing view by a vocal minority to limit the opportunities of our students. Our students have amazing capabilities and one of our many roles as educators is to eliminate the constraints that some would like to place on others. Our role is to provide greater opportunity for all of our students.

The honors and accelerated mathematics sequence will progress through high school with the following offerings: 6th grade, pre-algebra; 7th grade, algebra; 8th grade, algebra 2; 9th grade, geometry; 10th grade, pre-calculus; 11th grade, AP calculus; and 12th grade, multivariable calculus.

High school athletics

As with academic and co-curricular achievements, the students of WW-P are a force to be reckoned with on their respective fields, courts, pools, tracks, diamonds, and mats. In WW-P, we believe that participation in athletics contributes to physical, social, and emotional health, as well as to the development of social competencies and moral values. Cooperation and competition are essential skills emphasized in our athletic programs. Each year, numerous athletic awards are bestowed on individuals and teams by their respective conferences, divisions and leagues.

Review of athletic programs

During the 2017–2018 school year the district will form a task force to review athletic programs and offerings. We will engage members of the community through both focus groups and surveys to make assessments regarding future programmatic offerings. The committee will identify concerns, recommend areas of athletic expansion, identify programmatic opportunities and review facility challenges/needs.

Programs focused on social and emotional learning

Our counseling and teaching staff members are instrumental in providing a warm, welcome and respectful environment. We strive to provide a school community that provides safe learning environments that are free from harassment, intimidation and bullying. Our staff works to support activities throughout the year with a myriad of programs focused upon conflict resolution, bullying prevention, promoting respect and tolerance, character education, cyber ethics and cyberbullying.

Mindfulness

As a strategy for addressing stress, the strategic action plan for Goal 3 calls on the district to “Create safe spaces for faculty and students to practice SEL, mindfulness, etc.” What we know is that toxic stress impairs attention, feeling and emotion, sleep, mood regulation and learning readiness. During the 2017-‘18 school year we will work to identify mindfulness strategies and practices that could be implemented in our classrooms.

Several key components that will be incorporated into our work will be a focus on the basics of mindfulness meditation. Further, we will work to ensure that any adopted practices serve to cultivate gratitude, kindness, empathy and compassion.

We are proud of the work that Community Middle School has done to lead us forward in this work. Last school year our CMS Future Problem Solvers (FPS) were named the FPS World Champions. Team NuYu’s mission was to improve the social- emotional well-being of students at CMS by spreading healthy coping strategies to teachers, parents, and students.

Many members of our faculty have begun to utilize mindfulness strategies in their classrooms. Over the next school year our expectation is that we will adopt an SEL framework in order to further support this work.

Campaign connect

High School South, High School North, Grover Middle School and Community Middle School all continue to participate with Campaign Connect New Jersey. The program is designed to “support New Jersey schools in becoming safer, more supportive, engaging, and inspiring by providing them with the training, tools, and resources to facilitate a team of stakeholders (administrators, faculty, students, parents, and relevant community organizations) through a data-informed, relationship-driven cycle of continuous school improvement.”

Day of dialogue

During the last two school years, WW-P has participated in a countywide initiative entitled, Day of Dialogue. The Day of Dialogue brought representatives from all high schools in Mercer County together to engage in a dialogue on race, class, and gender.

The purpose of the Day of Dialogue was to create a safe sharing and listening space in which we could: Learn more about each individual’s perception of diversity; learn more about others’ perceptions of diversity; raise and explore challenging questions; and begin to create something new, together.