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Katonah Elementary School. 

The public forum at the Nov. 19 Katonah-Lewisboro Board of Education meeting, and again at the Dec. 3 meeting, was dominated by criticism of the district’s reading curriculum. Unusually, board discussion at the first meeting was then dominated by the administration’s response. That was not the case at the subsequent meeting.

Most of the input on the reading curriculum was from Meredith Black of Katonah, who submitted a petition with signatures of what she said were “163 members of the Katonah-Lewisboro community, including parents and supporting professionals.” By Dec. 3, that number was said to be 170. 

The petition requested that there be a “public discussion regarding the instruction of reading and parental/student experiences with respect to the acquisition of reading skills by our children: decoding, encoding, spelling, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.” It further asked for the organization of a literacy committee, “including parents, literacy experts and teachers, to explore the various research-based reading programs that we could, and should, use to teach our children the skills necessary to read.”

This was not the first time Ms. Black had voiced criticism of the district’s reading curriculum, but it was the first time she submitted a petition with the support of many others. 

In a separate letter emailed by Ms. Black, she asserted that, according to a 2018-19 New York state district report card, approximately 20% of KLSD students remain unable to read at grade level in grades three through eight. “Our district is not teaching all students to read,” she said. She also said district reading instruction is supplemented by private instruction, and that the success of students achieving proficiency is due in part to parents who invested additional time and money into tutoring and instruction so their child can learn to read. Additionally, Ms. Black contended that the existing reading curriculum “is not supported by science as proscribed, or implemented.”

Ms. Black also sent a message through Q&A during the meeting. She said the reliance on the current reading programs remained a matter of concern to her and many other parents. She said kindergarten parents have seen their children regress from being beginner readers, sounding out words, to bypassing the letters, looking at the pictures and guessing. “First-, second- and third-grade parents have seen their otherwise enthusiastic learners fall into despair about school, only to realize it’s because their child cannot read, and then sought private tutoring or private schooling for their child,” she maintained.

Additionally, Ms. Black contended that researchers have found that the program does not follow the science of reading, and is not the best or even an effective program for teaching children how to read, as it fails to address all five skills needed to become a proficient reader. 

Ms. Black said she hoped the board and teachers will take these concerns seriously, “and understand that the concerns I have raised are not mine alone, but are shared by many families throughout the district, as well as prominent literacy experts.” She added, “We make this request in the hope that the requested measures can create a transparent, open and constructive environment to improve the districtwide reading curriculum and instruction.”

As she noted, Ms. Black was not the only parent to level these criticisms during the meeting. Carolyn Snell sent a message that was full of praise for the district and the work it has done with remote learning, but expressed her full support for the petition to form a literacy committee and consult with literacy experts outside the district. She said her son struggled with reading when he was in kindergarten. “He cried when he came home because the books he was sent home with were too hard, and he cried when it came time to write.” She said she and her husband “spent thousands of dollars on an intensive phonemic intervention when it became apparent the district did not provide it because it was not part of the Units of Study curriculum.” She said she was relieved to find she was not alone in this experience, and supported the request for a comprehensive review of the curriculum. “Several board members promised me personally when asking for my vote that they would look into the issue if elected,” she said. “I ask simply that they keep their word.”

Erika Glick, a parent of two elementary students, said she would like to hear more about how the district is addressing the youngest students “who are not learning to read” utilizing the current reading program. 

KLSD Superintendent Andrew Selesnick requested a chance to respond to the comments. He said it was a little unusual to respond in this way, but that he thought it was appropriate because they had heard the comments before, repeatedly, and it was part of an ongoing exchange. He said this exchange about reading is happening in all types of districts throughout the country. “I am very carefully calling it an exchange and not a discussion,” he said. “I think it’s very important for a public school district to be in discussion with its community.”

Mr. Selesnick said he had sympathy for any parent of a child who is struggling. “At the same time, I don’t think it’s right to say that a school district necessarily could change something that would make that go away for all children — and our responsibility most definitely is to all children.” He added, “If we are to make change on a large scale, we have to be sure that change is one that benefits the majority of students in our district. It is not possible to find one solution that is a panacea for every student in the district.”

That this exchange was ongoing was clear from the fact that a PowerPoint presentation had already been prepared and was presented by Mary Ford, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. She described all of the components of the district’s reading curriculum in detail, including recent enhancements, explaining the philosophy behind each one and how teachers utilize them to individualize instruction for each student.

Ms. Ford said that the district continues to believe in responsive teaching, and in closer attention to word study instruction which includes phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling and vocabulary as part of a balanced literacy approach. She said the district stands behind its belief that no singular approach is a panacea for all children.

Mr. Selesnick said that he believed the one piece of data Ms. Black was responding to was the 2019 ELA exams for grades three through eight, which showed KLSD at 76% proficient. Results for the state overall show 45% as proficient, while in Westchester County 53% are proficient. The highest ranked Westchester district came in at 85%. Mr. Selesnick noted that he is in frequent communication with other districts, and that those scoring higher take a “very similar approach” to reading as does KLSD. Ms. Ford added that the ELA exams measure writing as well as reading proficiency. 

The statistics Mr. Selesnick presented showed that based on those ELA scores, KLSD is ranked 8 out of 40-plus districts in Westchester, and 9 out of over 54 districts in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. He also highlighted the 2018-19 English regents exam, at which 96% of KLSD students scored proficient, compared to 84% for all of New York state. 

He further pointed to scores for students with disabilities, which he said was another statistic that had been singled out. Although the 2019 3-8 ELA scores showed 29% of students with disabilities achieving proficiency, that percentage compared to only 14% for all of Westchester County and all of New York state.

“We think it’s very important to put the comments in context,” Mr. Selesnick said. “Not to say that we don’t listen — we do listen very carefully to our parents — but in the absence of comprehensive public school programs that achieve significantly higher results than we do by taking very different approaches, it is very difficult for us to consider putting aside practices that have served so many students so well over a long period of time, because groups of parents are asking us to consider exactly that.”

Mr. Selesnick said he did not plan to recommend the board form a literacy committee in response to a petition. “I don’t think that’s a good idea at this moment, in the middle of a global pandemic, as we continue making every effort to keep our schools open. I don’t have confidence that it would be productive at this moment. And I wouldn’t want to encourage our community to think that petitions are a good strategy for engaging in authentic conversation around complicated topics — and certainly the teaching of reading is such a complicated topic.” 

He said he was certain that the exchange would continue, and the district would keep looking to improve, but remain mindful of all students in the district and not make rash decisions. 

He was correct about the exchange continuing. At the Dec. 3 meeting, Ms. Black and Ms. Glick again submitted comments. Both also promoted a presentation at Katonah Village Library on Dec. 9, titled, “The Road to Reading: What Parents Should Know About the Science of Teaching Young Children to Read” by Phyllis Bertin. 

Ms. Glick asked if the board would consider sending out a survey to take a closer look at how families view their children as readers and writers since it was “unwilling to consider the petition with 170 signatures.” She said a survey would be valuable in determining the degree to which other KLSD students are receiving private tutoring and whether families are satisfied with their children’s reading abilities.

“This isn’t our side versus your side,” said Ms. Glick, “these are not philosophical beliefs, this is science, the science of reading.” She claimed there were portions of the PowerPoint presentation that “deserved rebuttal, clarification, and an opportunity to discuss,” and asked that the administration and board consider the Dec. 9 presentation by Ms. Bertin as an “opportunity to learn more.”

Ms. Black said she and many other parents were disappointed by “your unilateral dismissal of our petition,” but she would continue to bring the issue to the board. The library presentation, she said, “would be the first step in opening up a real dialogue on this important issue.”

Jeff Morris is a staff reporter at The Record-Review where he covers the Town of Bedford and the Katonah-Lewisboro School District. Prior to joining the paper he was a reporter and columnist for the Lewisboro Ledger and a business magazine editor.

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