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Project Based Learning supporters speak out / June 05, 2013
Monday night’s special meeting of the Mecklenburg County School Board turned into a forum for parents and teachers to tout the virtues of Project Based Learning, a curriculum that was instituted on a pilot basis this year among sixth grade students. Beginning with the 2013-2014 school year, all students in grades five through nine will be taught using the program.

Dr. Melody Hackney was formally introduced to school trustees as the “leader” that the county school division will rely on as it moves ahead with implementation of Project Based Learning (PBL). Hackney, former superintendent of Charlotte County Schools, is moving back to Mecklenburg, where she worked before going to Charlotte, to rejoin the Central Office in Boydton.

Hackney said much of the current information swirling around in the public outcry against PBL is inaccurate. “We have a public education system that has fallen behind compared to other countries and this is why we have to rethink what we are doing. We are paying the price for a national educational system that has for too long valued teaching to the test” — a reference to SOL tests given to students at the end of the school year — “over a deeper, analytical learning process.”

Hackney acknowledge that, perhaps, Mecklenburg County could have implemented PBL differently, taking more time to develop lesson plans and prepare the teaching staff, but added, “Yes, in a perfect world changes needs to be slow, strategic and systemic. However, the urgency of this work [education of the students] is that our kids are being trained with skills that don’t exist or not trained for jobs that do exist.

“As of today there are over 8,000 STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] jobs that cannot be filled with our kids because they don’t have the necessary skills” in analytical and critical thinking and reasoning, said Hackney.

Before opening the floor to public comment, Superintendent of Schools James Thornton, for the first time, publicly addressed many of the rumors swirling around about him personally, concerning the manner in which he has conducted business on behalf of Mecklenburg County Public Schools.

Addressing alleged conflicts of interest that have been aired in public with the school division’s move to outsource cafeteria services, Thornton again explained that his wife is a Vice President with Aramark, a direct competitor of the Compass Group, the company that owns both Service Solutions and Chartwell, the food service company that the School Board has considered hiring.

Also, said Thornton, seeking to shoot down another rumor, Park View High School Principal Michelle Powell was not demoted. He said she asked to move to La Crosse Elementary when the position became available because she felt that leading an elementary school instead of a high school was more consistent with her education and interests.

As for the “great band conspiracy,” Thornton said he never intended to dismantle the program, as some backers of the marching bands at Bluestone and Park View have suggested. Under the block schedule that existed through this school year, both middle school band programs struggled to find participants during spring concert season. The new schedule, he said, allows more students the opportunity to take band during both the spring and the fall.

Students who are in dual enrollment, however, may still be precluded from taking band since some of their elective choices must include academic courses required under the dual enrollment program.

Finally, the evening was filled with a long line of students, parents and teachers who spoke in favor of PBL. They told about how they or their children became more poised, confident and even excited about school.

Perhaps the most poignant story was that from Jessica Csorba, whose son Frank suffers from numerous disabilities including Asperger syndrome, turrets syndrome, and ADHD. “This was a child who stuttered and rubbed his face until it was raw,” Csorba said of her son. “But just a few weeks ago, he stood before you as a member of the Bluestone Middle School Forensics team after having won first place in after-dinner speaking at the regional competition.” Csorba credited his “remarkable” educational advancement to Project Based Learning.

The lone voice in opposition to PBL came from Kimberly Mulllins. She said PBL failed her daughter “on a grand scale.” Mullins acknowledged that PBL made her daughter more creative, but said she entered middle school unable to multiply two or more numbers or divide with decimals and she left unable to multiply two or more numbers or divide with decimals.

One of Mullins’ frustrations came from the fact that her daughter was encouraged to use a computer program called “My Big Campus” for homework assignments and as a resource. However, the Mullins’ do not have computers or television in their home, and this became a problem for the student, she said.

Sandra Tanner, in an earlier letter to one of her constituents, which was made public on Facebook, also gave insight into many of the recent Board decisions and addressed several concerns with the school board, Thornton and PBL.

She explained the committee process behind the decision to bring a new math program, Every Day Math, into the schools. She spoke about the upcoming schedule change, which was done to give teachers more professional development time. She even agreed that the time change was an inconvenience to many parents, including her. However, transportation would be available and the schools would be open with supervision available for students who needed to arrive early.

Tanner also addressed, at length, the public perception that morale among teachers in Mecklenburg County is at an all-time low, because teachers and staff fear for their jobs if they speak out in opposition to Thornton or his programs.

Tanner said she, like Thornton, has encouraged anyone who believes that teachers and staff are removed or demoted for “speaking out” to ask permission from the “injured teacher” to see their personnel file. Unless permission is given, the Board is precluded by law from discussing personnel matters. With that said, she explained “that even though Virginia is an at-will state” — employees have no collective bargaining rights — “contracts, tenure, and other laws prohibit us from arbitrarily being able to make changes for minor reasons.”

Tanner continued, “In the five-plus years that I have been on the board, including the last three with Dr. Thornton as Superintendent, we have never had anyone come before us for dismissal because of speaking their minds or voicing their opinion. There has been just cause for any issues that have been brought to us.”

Tanner said she could explain the displeasure being voiced by some teachers. “For the first time in many years, staff and teachers are really being evaluated on performance and being held accountable rather than just being given ‘meets or exceeds’ expectation. I can see how an employee who has always received great evaluations and is now getting less than stellar evaluations could misconstrue and feel that they aren’t able to speak their mind for fear of their jobs.”

Before ending the meeting, Chase City-area trustee Dale Sturdifen expressed surprise at the number of parents and even teachers whose remarks either stated or implied that the School Board was considering eliminating PBL. “I am not opposed to PBL. I simply want to know who the expert is and to see the written plan for implementing the program. If one of the issues is ‘buy-in’ then how do we expect that to happen if the teaching method is mandatory for all classes in grades 5-9,” he asked.

In response to all those who oppose PBL, trustee Joan Wagstaff said of the reason she supports PBL, “It’s just common sense. If a child is more engaged, then they are more likely to learn.” She only wished her sons had benefited from PBL learning.

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Forget the sales propaganda!!!Test data speaks for itself! Everything this man does is a purchased program, you go figure!!!! Check out the results from the DOE, prior to his arrival til today.


Great article! I've been looking for insights on how this all works, and this gave me some great insight! Thanks for sharing.

Jason |

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