Parents concerned classroom changes could dilute AMES choice program

Parents of students in the Advanced Math Engineering Science Academy at Beaufort Elementary School say a recent change to the program detracts from its very nature as an academy.

Starting next school year, the AMES academy classrooms -- with two classes each in third, fourth and fifth grades -- will no longer be housed in their own hallway. Instead, they will be separated and placed in their respective grade level's halls.

School and district level officials say this is just a location change to increase collaboration among teachers of the same grade level, which could result in sharing ideas to benefit all students.

But parents say it is much more than that and are concerned it will dilute the program.

"This program has always been advertised as a school-within-a-school, and they are changing that aspect of it," said Annie Ballance, who has a rising fifth-grader in AMES.

"What they are really doing is gutting the AMES program. ... It was successful, so why change it?"

The AMES academy began at Beaufort Elementary in 2008 and has since expanded to Pritchardville Elementary School. Both are magnet programs for gifted and high-achieving students that provide rigorous math and science skills taught through engineering projects, according to the district's description.

Beaufort Elementary principal Gary McCulloch said nothing about the program is changing. It will still offer the same curriculum and serve the same students, he said.

While the AMES classrooms will be integrated with traditional classes, the students will only mingle during lunch times and recess, just as the program currently operates, according to district head of instruction Dereck Rhoads.

The move to increase collaboration between AMES and teachers in traditional classrooms might also spread the core tenets of AMES throughout the school, McCulloch said.

But Ellen Parker, a former fourth-grade AMES teacher at Beaufort Elementary who retired before the 2013-14 school year, said the AMES teachers already collaborated at least once a week with grade-level teachers outside the program.

"We were always told when we started the program that it was crucial AMES be different," Parker said. "So the amount of co-planning you would do with a regular program classroom would be minimal, anyhow."

She said older and younger students within the AMES program collaborate frequently, making it important to house them together. Having the classes contained in a single hall facilitated that work and created the "school-within-a-school" environment, Parker added.

The state Department of Education defines a school-within-a-school or magnet program as a "separate, self-contained school ... designed exclusively for gifted and talented learners," according to its best-practices manual.

Rhoads said that atmosphere has been maintained, and he hopes parents will see that in the fall.

"Where those classrooms are located has never been part of the program," he said. "So there is no strengthening, no dilution, really no change to the program."

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Beaufort County School District's AMES program