PYP back in the spotlight

Cd'A School Board may move up decision about controversial program

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SHAWN GUST/Press Josh Helwich, a fifth grade student at Hayden Meadows Elementary School, listens to a high school mentor Tuesday during his core math class. In recent school board meetings, parents have shown concern to the possibility of the school's Primary Years Program being removed from the curriculum.

Time may be running out for the controversial Primary Years Programme at Hayden Meadows Elementary School, despite support shown at recent school board meetings by parents and educators who laud the program.

"My children have blossomed and thrived ... We just came here in January and the difference that I have seen in each one of my children is remarkable," said parent Ashlie Unruh, speaking to district trustees at the Sept. 10 school board meeting.

Unruh was among several parents who testified at the meeting, expressing concern about the future of the district's "schools of choice," especially PYP at Hayden Meadows. Dozens of other parents observed the meeting, many showing their support by wearing pro-PYP T-shirts.

Heather Riviere said she and her husband send their children to Hayden Meadows, "Because as the IB website says, the PYP 'promotes inter-cultural understanding and respect, not as an alternative to a sense of cultural and national identity, but as an essential part of life in the 21st century.'"

The parents addressed the board during the time set aside for members of the public to speak regarding non-agenda items, so no further board discussion took place following the parents' testimony.

PYP, a framework for curriculum offered through the International Baccalaureate Organization, has been at the center of public controversy for several years in the Coeur d'Alene School District. Opponents claim IB programs promote a political, philosophical agenda while passionate supporters, including parents and educators, embrace the program's inquiry-based learning structure and celebrate the results they see in their students.

School board chair Tom Hamilton told The Press Tuesday that trustees had planned to research the value of PYP throughout the next few months, but that plan may change.

"While we would have liked to have taken a measured approach, a group of parents who have been militant in their support of PYP, have really taken away that opportunity," Hamilton said.

He said he has recently been contacted by roughly 20 Hayden Meadows families who claim that because they don't support the PYP program, they have been intimidated by supporters of PYP, mainly parents he said, and some faculty.

Hamilton would not identify the parents who have contacted him, saying they wish to remain anonymous because they feel they have been bullied and fear retribution if they speak out.

Hayden Meadows Principal Lisa Pica said she has not heard from any parents who feel intimidated or that they have been bullied.

"If it's happening, I'm not aware of it," Pica said. "I have stood firm that this is a place for teaching and learning, and I will continue to do that."

The board intended to have an independent third-party firm provide unbiased information about PYP to all Hayden Meadows parents, including some of the reasons people oppose it, Hamilton said. The firm would also survey families to see how many parents are there because they want PYP.

"And how many are like me, and they're there against their will," Hamilton said.

The controversy is beginning to affect learning at the school, he said.

Hamilton said he personally opposes PYP because while it's not a curriculum, it's a teaching method that comes with a philosophy and with values embedded in it. And parents who want to send their children to their neighborhood school don't have an opportunity to opt out of PYP, he said.

"Its basic philosophy is contrary to my values," Hamilton said.

PYP teaches moral relativism, he said, describing it as the belief that other people can have different value systems and both be right. He said he and his wife raise their kids to believe in moral absolutes.

"Is it wrong for me to teach my kids that there are factions of Islam that are dangerous? PYP doesn't teach that," he said. "I raise my children in a Judeo-Christian religion that teaches love, not hate, but not necessarily tolerance."

A 2010 school district task force indicated that IB does not teach moral relativism, but rather "compassion and tolerance for the diversity of beliefs, core principles, and experiences that define moral behaviors in our community, in our state, our nation, and around the world."

Riviere told the board on Sept. 10: "PYP does not teach students what to think about anything, but rather teaches them analytical skills they can use to learn about and truly understand any subject."

Hamilton said his own issue with PYP began with his own experiences as a Hayden Meadows parent. A teacher told his daughter that if her parents take her to church, they're teaching her to believe in "ghosts and fairy tales." When Hamilton complained, he said the teacher used PYP principles to defend the action.

Hamilton said he does not think he has the right to force his values on anyone else's children.

"I also don't believe a public school has the right to teach against what I believe," Hamilton said.

The school district does offer Hayden Meadows parents an alternative to PYP, the opportunity to transfer their children to another non-PYP elementary school - Dalton, Skyway or Atlas, depending on where they live. The district is willing to provide transportation in these cases.

There is no immediate plan for trustees to take action on whether to continue PYP at Hayden Meadows, but the board could consider it at its next meeting on Oct. 1.

Citing poor enrollment and unimpressive test scores, trustees decided in August to pull the plug on the IB Diploma Programme offered at Lake City High School. At that time, trustee Terri Seymour said she would like the board to take an objective look at PYP before deciding whether to retain that element of IB in the district.

Despite any controversy, enrollment is up at the school. Last year, Hayden Meadows had 580 registered students and now enrollment is 619. At times, there are waiting lists for some grades, Pica said. Under the school district's open enrollment policy, parents are able to have their children attend any district school, provided there is room. This year there are 69 students who have transferred in to Hayden Meadows, with 56 from within the district and 13 from outside. There are 17 students who have transferred out.

Matt Handelman, the district's associate superintendent, said they can't attribute the incoming or outgoing students to the presence of PYP, but from a business standpoint, a significantly larger influx of students is positive.

Steve Griffitts, president of Jobs Plus, Kootenai County's nonprofit economic development agency and husband of a teacher at Hayden Meadows, told The Press that visitors to the area are impressed by the presence of PYP in Coeur d'Alene.

"They see that our focus is on excellent education, that we strive for it, whether it's PYP, KTEC (the new professional-technical high school), or North Idaho College. If we lose any of these programs, we will lose in our efforts to recruit great companies," Griffitts said.

During the Sept. 10 board meeting, trustees discussed the new five-star ratings assigned to Idaho schools by the state department of education. The ratings are a move away from measuring school performance by student achievement test performance alone. The star system includes a component that measures and factors in individual student academic growth in grades four and five.

Hayden Meadows received a three-star rating, scoring 65, two points away from receiving four stars.

Duncan Koler, an anti-IB activist who removed a child from Hayden Meadows several years ago because of PYP, testified following the star rating presentation.

"I think PYP is a failed social experiment just like IB has been in our district," Koler said. "I look forward to further airing of the performance data. At least by one significant measure, it does appear that there was a significant drop-off at Hayden Meadows."

With its three-star rating, Hayden Meadows still has some of the highest reading scores among district elementary schools, in grades that are not accounted for in the star point calculations. The school's adequate yearly progress scores, based on student proficiency on achievement tests, still exceed state benchmarks.

According to the state department of education's overview of the star rating system: "Three-star schools will be recognized as doing a good job for students, but will also be required to develop an improvement plan for certain areas in which the school could improve academic achievement."

Associate Superintendent Handelman said that because all schools in the district, regardless of star ratings, are required to have improvement plans, Hayden Meadows is ahead of the game.

"The bottom line is that there is great teaching and learning happening at Hayden Meadows," he said.

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