The extraordinary Underground Railroad program was conducted again this spring at Ambler Farm under the direction of Cider Mill teachers Kevin Meehan and Tim Gallo working with Adrienne Reedy, Dan Fox, “Farmer Jonathan” Kirschner, and Dan Reilly.

The program involves all of our fifth-grade students in 80-student groupings for a 90-minute simulation of what it would have been like to be a slave in 1850s America: from slave ship, to auction block, to work on a plantation, to attempted escape through the Underground Railroad. It’s a profound experience that will stay with these students for a very long time.

The creative inter-disciplinary work going on in our schools was again underscored in the fascinating student projects presented at open houses held at Middlebrook and Cider Mill last week.

Seeing what our teachers inspire through innovative programs like these instills profound respect for what they do for our kids. Time and again throughout our whole school system, we’ve seen farsighted experiential programs combined with strong educational fundamentals. It’s no wonder that our schools regularly receive recognition as among the best in the country.

Within this extraordinary educational environment, the subject of the new instructional coaches program has been controversial. That program consists of nine experienced educators with two supervisors; they are designated to offer coaching services to teachers throughout our school system. These coaches at one time had both coaching and small-classroom-teaching responsibilities but now focus exclusively on coaching. Their services are designed to give consistency of educational experience both across the multiple classrooms in each grade level and also over the course of students’ entire educational career from their earliest years all the way to high-school graduation.

In fact, teaching coaches have long been a valued part of our school system, and so the question is not whether there should be coaches but instead what form the coaching should take. Our school system’s current teacher-instructing staff falls into two categories: (a) those newly instituted nine full-time instructional coaches and their two supervisors who, at an all-in cost of $110,000 to $130,000 per senior position, cost $1.2 million to $1.4 million annually, and (b) the long-established “Instructional Leaders” who have regular classroom teaching responsibilities and the additional duty of being a coordinator and teaching coach; Instructional Leaders receive annually an additional $4,300 to $16,200 in compensation for undertaking these extra responsibilities.

I certainly don’t have the expertise to judge the comparative merit of these two types of coaching models, but it is clear that there is a great need for more communication, and it’s good to see that happening, especially over the last several months. Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Chuck Smith have been meeting with parents, teachers and interested citizens to hear questions and concerns about the instructional coaching model. They consider that model “an essential component of our instructional improvement strategy…[and] a research-based best practice….”

I’m told that implementation of the new instructional coaching model has gone especially well at Cider Mill, likely in large part due to an excellent foundation for it laid there by its Principal Jennifer Mitchell working closely with the superintendents and with much pre-introduction prep for the teachers and other staff. It may also be that this coaching model works especially well in lower grades. In any event, it is good to hear Superintendent Smith say, as he did speaking this spring at Kiwanis, that he “is looking at implementation as an ongoing conversation” with discussion so far just “an opening conversation.”

That’s definitely a very wise approach, and it is clearly being followed up now with his and Assistant Superintendent Smith’s ongoing discussions with teachers across all grade levels. The Smiths have reiterated their decision to take things slower on the instructional-coaching front and to have more dialogue with teachers, seeking input from them and reassuring them that the objective here is not to diminish excellent present teaching techniques — of which both Smiths as well as School Board Chair Bruce Likly are highly complimentary — nor to discourage individual initiative in teaching. Dialogue between administrators and teachers is ongoing in both individual and group settings with teachers encouraged to take advantage of these dialoguing opportunities and to be fully candid in them.

There’s a real need for serious conversation accompanied by good listening. As that happens now, it bodes well for everyone involved, including all of us residents who rely on our schools to provide outstanding education to our young people, as they are in fact doing so well.