Letter spells trouble for school curriculum; Parents, grandparents voice concerns over policies

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This note sent to parents of elementary age students in Natchitoches Parish was posted on social media. It created a firestorm of controversy over the curriculum changes and the way parents/guardians are contacted and informed

 By Carolyn Roy, carolyn@natchitochestimes.com

Supt. Dale Skinner spoke Wednesday morning about the controversy on social media concerning the spelling policy in Natchitoches Parish Schools that emerged when a teacher sent notes to parents that there would no longer be spelling lessons and students would no longer have spelling tests.

“The sad thing is that false information should never have been sent out by a teacher, principal or any school personnel,” Skinner said about the note that was posted on Facebook. Director of Curriculum for the Natchitoches Parish School Board Susan Horne further explained that policy changes made by the school board some five years ago, according to Dept. of Education, only revamped the way spelling is taught. It did not eliminate spelling. Horne says, “It’s not a new change. It’s the way we’ve been doing it for about five years. We’re teaching it according to  State standards.”

Horn says spelling is now taught in context of the curriculum of writing in English/language arts which is what “in context” means. Spelling is addressed everyday and there have been no changes to the policy that has been in effect.

Students may no longer study lists of words, or “in isolation”, but receive attention if they misspell a word while writing. ‘It’s just not being taught the way it used to be. There’s a different approach.” The teacher who sent the note that spelling was no longer being taught, was observed teaching spelling by the old method. When she was informed that she was teaching the wrong method, she interpreted it to mean that the school board policy was that spelling was no longer being taught.

After the teacher’s note was posted to Facebook, Horne sent an email to principals telling about the inaccurate information in the note and they should advise parents who called that spelling is no longer taught in isolation, but is embedded within the curriculum.

The teacher’s principal sent copies of the email to parents at his school and the Facebook comments increased. Skinner said it is best summarized by saying that misinformation was sent to parents. “If the people who put it on Facebook had called the principal or the central office personnel, they would have been glad to explain it and this would not have happened.”

Further stimulating the controversy were Facebook posts by school board member Steven R. Harris Sr. that parents didn’t understand a letter Skinner sent out Dec. 7. The letter stated that spelling is still taught but not in the same manner as before new standards.

“Spelling and vocabulary are embedded in our everyday curriculum units and are taught in context rather than in isolation,” the letter read. On Facebook, Harris said when he mentioned to Skinner that parents didn’t understand the letter or the explanation in a robo call last week, that Skinner said they should get a dictionary.

Skinner said, “He (Steven Harris) said people didn’t understand ‘in context’. I did say they need a dictionary. We use one everyday. It was not derogatory. I was not going to insult the intelligence of all the people in Natchitoches Parish who understood the definition of the word context.”

In addressing the Facebook postings, Skinner said he reemphasized that he has an open door policy for those who have a problem or questions. “You don’t see much on social media about our accomplishments,” he said. “I challenge those on social media to tell us what they have done to help us have better schools.”

“I extend my thanks to the staff and employees of the school system for their dedication to making Natchitoches Parish schools better. “And also to the great students, parents and friends of the school system for their support.”

Parents, grandparents voice concerns over policies

By Juanice Gray, jgray@natchitochestimes.com

As with any issue, there is always more than one side to every story. In an effort to present the full story from every angle, I solicited parent and guardian comments regarding the spelling controversy. Following are responses in their own words.

I personally feel that spelling should be it’s own curriculum because it’s a part of your every day life. Just because it’s going to be embedded into other curriculums doesn’t mean that they’re going to stress the importance of it enough.
For instance, English class. How do they expect a child to know how to read and write if they can’t spell?
I believe this is going to be the worst mistake they could have ever made. It’s also very sickening that most parents had to find out through social media that they were taking spelling away. Yes, some parents did receive letters but the letters were very vague.
The correct way to do it was to send out letters explaining what was going on and give a valid reason why. It’s almost like the parents don’t even have a say so in the education of their own children.
Pam Moore Williams, elementary school grandparent

After we received the news that spelling wasn’t going to be taught in school anymore, we were concerned just like everyone else, but after talking to friends I understood what the purpose of it was. I think it’s always a great thing when schools can find a way to innovate learning for our kids. The way it was implemented was the issue; middle of the year changes to curriculum with no explanation. I’m not sure how Mr. Skinner thought that was going to go. Even then, I could have understood a miscommunication. Then the remarks said by Mr. Skinner for parents to “…get a dictionary if we didn’t understand the note or the robocall” came to light. This is the problem with his leadership. Concerned parents are met with sarcasm and a very uncaring voice. I have had the displeasure of dealing with him and I was told to “go back to school” if I wanted to help my child with homework.

He claims to have an open door policy for parents but after the way I was treated by Mr. Skinner, I can only assume that is only if you agree with him and have no questions. He says he wants parental involvement but when a parent attempts, he doesn’t want it. You can’t have it both ways Mr. Skinner. If you have an issue and are actually able to get in touch with him, all of the blame goes to the state or the BESE board, even the teachers who are with our kids every day. No buck stops at him. He “understands” your problem but he doesn’t really care. I am in full agreement with the sentiment I’ve heard from MANY parents that a change is needed in Natchitoches parish education, starting at the top.

Candy McCullough, elementary school parent

Spelling being removed as an individual subject and being embedded in other areas will not benefit our children in my opinion. Spelling skills are required in critical thinking, communication and to succeed in school and life. Being taught how to spell is essential in learning to read. The number one reason a child or adult can’t read well is because they can’t spell. Children learn what we teach and if a child is not taught to spell their reading will not be proficient and they will struggle in all areas academically.

The English language has a larger vocabulary and is more difficult to spell than almost any other language. English has 44 sounds and over 1,000 letter combinations. This is not something that should be embedded in other areas of education. If you want children to succeed spelling is essential. You must be able to write to read! If removing spelling as an individual subject and embedding it in other areas is effective, show us the research to support that. Seems interesting that all of the highly educated individuals with multiple degrees in favor, or they are the ones responsible for taking spelling out of the curriculum, were all educated with spelling in the curriculum.

Does this mean they are not as smart as we assume they are? If this was a change in curriculum that was taking place, it should have been brought to the attention of the parents sooner, not half way into the school year. Parents are not made aware of many things involving their child’s education any longer since the school board does not approve of information being sent home with the child for the parents to help with the child’s understanding and learning. Communication is key to a smooth transition in any area. Parents are not against change and new ways of learning if they are informed. Degrading parents by assuming they are uneducated and can’t understand is not helping this situation, but only adding fuel to fire. Embedding spelling is embedding a child’s education.

Melanie Hearold, elementary school parent

The school system has no transparency. As parents we can’t even sit in class to observe what or how the curriculum is being taught. I think spelling and vocabulary should be separate as it was when I was a child in school. I check my fifth grader’s work sometimes and basically seems as if he spells things like he sounds it out.

I’m sure other children are doing the same. They made these drastic changes for the children, then tell the parents to accept it, which is wrong. I personally feel he, or really any of the school board members, do not understand our concerns since they most likely have children it is not affecting. School board is a new form of organized child abuse.

Children can’t wear regular clothes/hairstyles to express themselves. Overcrowded classrooms, which make it harder give struggling students one-on-one lessons. No homework pertaining to the lesson taught at school. Girl’s bathrooms missing (janitor said it was on back order) soap and they wonder why the school had a bad flu outbreak. Sad part is they will not admit they messed up. They will just make more changes to cover what has been done wrong. And the overall school grades……the only school that has an A is magnet and that’s ridiculous.

Renee Johnson, elementary school parent