Sparta educator builds case for new high school

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:48

    SPARTA-There's no problem walking the company line; not the way Kathy Monks sees it. Sparta needs a new high school, the new Sparta assistant superintendent for curriculum said without hesitation. Monks reached her opinion not on an evaluation of bricks and mortar, but on more traditional educational building blocks instead n reading, writing, and arithmetic. Monks, who joined the local board of education in December, said test scores for Sparta students in grades K-12 are not up to par with those of schools in "I" districts throughout New Jersey. "For me it's all about the curriculum," said Monks, a lifelong educator who has served in a similar position for the Branchburg school district in Somerset County before coming to Sparta. "There's nothing to be debated. We have some real needs here and they will never come to fruition until we reduce class size." Sparta is classified by the state as "I" among the District Factor Groups, with "A" being the lowest identification and "J" the highest. The groups compare the performance of students on statewide assessments across demographically similar school districts. The groupings represent an approximate measure of a community's relative socioeconomic status. The "A-J" classification system provides a tool for examining student achievement and comparing similarly-situated school districts in other analyses, the state Department of Education said. Other "I" schools within the county include Byram and Green townships. When Monks arrived in Sparta, she began an analysis of the test scores among other "I" districts to identify areas of improvement and develop plans for Sparta schools. Monks said she found math test scores to be lower than expected for an "I" district. Further disturbing was that only 33 percent of Sparta students complete an introductory algebra class before entering high school. She hopes to see that figure double. In September, Monks said Sparta will implement a math program in the elementary schools that will bring consistency to the curriculum "within a grade and among the grades." Monks said Sparta has a long way to go if the district is to improve its writing scores. She said there is one creative writing elective offered at Sparta High School and the class is filled by 30 students. Required English courses have up to 25 students, she said. The state recommends English classes hold no more than 20, she said. In her evaluation, Monks found some "I" districts to offer at least seven creative writing electives and as many as 28 at a school in Burlington County. "It's an area that shows signs for the need to improve, but it is impacted by class size because of the amount of the time it takes to correct papers n it takes individualized instruction," said Monks. "You're not going to see an improvement in writing until the students are writing more and you won't see them writing more until there are smaller class sizes." Monks said the typical writing assignment demands at least 20 minutes to correct, or 42 hours for 125 student papers. The National Council of Teachers of English recommends no more than 80 students per English instructor. "There are not enough hours in a week," said Monks. "It's not unusual for me to hear from a parent who says their children aren't receiving enough homework. The English teachers are overwhelmed." Monks said the large class sizes are affecting reading levels within the district because students are not able to get the individualized instruction they need. She wants Sparta to be able to ask its students to do more than just read from the classics like Shakespeare, but to apply the messages to their lives today. In other schools, she explained, students are able to present elaborate book reports using video and multimedia, something Sparta has not been able to provide. "It's not just about picking up a book anymore," said Monks. "You can learn how to read and write, but you're not going to be competitive. It's our obligation to provide opportunities to all our students to compete." Monks has been around other school buildings. She's been a principal at both the elementary and high school levels. Earlier this year, she took part in a tour of comparative schools across the state with other administrators, teachers and parents to evaluate the needs and possibilities of the proposed new high school. For Monks, improving scores in Sparta will take reducing the class sizes; will take building a new high school. "We're living in a global society," said Monks. "We need to know about everybody and everything and education is how you get ready for that."