EAU CLAIRE — The Eau Claire school board on Monday unanimously voted to end the district’s practice of diverting students into different classes based on ability and achievement, instead approving a policy that would integrate students into mixed-ability classrooms but still cluster higher-achieving students into small groups within those classrooms.

The new policy is an effort to end the district’s practice that several school board members said Monday wasn’t equitable to students of color, students at a lower socio-economic level and English language learners.

The policy is part of a larger initiative, called the Equitable Multi-Level System of Supports (EMLSS) model, which the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has endorsed.

Three community members criticized the proposed policy change during the public comment portion of Monday’s school board meeting, one citing concern that teachers could adopt the new policy immediately and calling for a slow rollout.

The new policy will eliminate the “honors,” “enriched” and “basic” labels for courses in Eau Claire schools.

Under the new policy, students won’t be separated into different classes based on their ability level. Instead, gifted and talented students will be placed in small groups within classrooms, using a technique called cluster grouping.

Schools that use cluster grouping traditionally place three to eight students “with like or similar gifts and talents … in the same mixed-ability classroom,” the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction wrote in 2011.

The district isn’t swapping higher-level curriculum for lower-level instruction, school board president Tim Nordin said Friday, saying that all classes will offer that higher-level curriculum.

The new policy won’t affect AP or college transcripted courses, which will still function as before, said Jim Schmitt, executive director of teaching and learning.

The district isn’t taking away enrichment within classes, Nordin emphasized on Friday: “We’re providing enrichment in a different and more equitable way.”

Gifted and talented staffers will still support teachers and work with students within classrooms, he said.

Nordin and school officials on Monday argued that the district’s old policy was harmful and didn’t help students of color and minority students close achievement gaps.

“It’s really a conscious decision we made as a district, several years ago, to start creating these tracks that have really narrowed the focus of a classroom,” Schmitt said. “As I talk with principals, the word disruptive comes up. This really does disrupt their ability to develop their students … they don’t have the ability to create flexible groupings of students.”

“EMLSS provides a framework for us, as a district, to ensure there’s equitable services, practices and resources for every student,” said Mandy Van Vleet, executive director of special education.

Change is needed

Schmitt said that the district’s own data shows that most typical high-achieving students don’t accelerate at the same pace when they enter enriched classes, though the few very highest-achieving students did.

“We’ve found, and data shows us … you can have very successful students that develop at a pace to meet their needs,” Schmitt said. “... There is no more critical juncture in our school district than 5th to 6th grade. The pressure put on identifying students and tracking them at that grade level tends to lock them in for many years to come.”

District officials have been studying the proposed shift for months, Schmitt said, surveying students and discussing the change with teachers.

“Our current system is inequitable, and frankly, we can see in our data … our students of color and students of a lower socioeconomic background are disproportionately not given access to these higher-level courses,” Nordin said Friday.

In the proposed EMLSS model, “we have this massive benefit for students from an equity perspective ... and students previously in the upper level (of achievement) aren’t harmed. They achieve just as highly,” Nordin added.

Several school board members expressed enthusiastic support for the policy Monday. Others agreed, but expressed concern that teachers would get adequate training and support.

Teachers are trained to educate a classroom full of mixed-ability students, said school board vice president Lori Bica, who is also a UW-Eau Claire professor of developmental psychology.

“We know teachers are prepared to teach in mixed-ability classes, not in ability grouping,” Bica said. “... To avoid ability grouping at the high school level is always the aim of teacher education. I don’t know why we would wait any longer than we already have.”

All virtual

The school district announced last week it would move to all-virtual learning starting Nov. 30, saying so many teachers and staff were quarantined that it was becoming difficult to staff schools.

Last week, 95 staffers and 816 students were in quarantine, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. Fifteen staffers were testing positive for the virus last week, as well as 42 students.

On Friday, twenty staffers from the district’s main office were sent to schools to substitute in classrooms, said Eau Claire schools superintendent Mike Johnson.

“We’ve heard, from concerned parents and community members, questions about allowing co-curricular activities to continue,” Johnson said Monday. “We believe we can mitigate risk and safely continue these activities at this time for our students. However, we will continue to monitor and analyze the situations closely … and make adjustments as needed.”

The virus is still ramping up in Eau Claire County as a whole. It hit a new daily case record Monday, reporting 284 county residents had been diagnosed with COVID-19 that day alone. Another two county residents died of the virus Monday, according to county data.

The district will stay in all-virtual classes at least through Dec. 8, but district officials said in an announcement they plan to make a decision by Dec. 1 about continuing all-virtual learning.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.