CHINA — A debate over a change in how students in the district are educated took center stage during Wednesday night’s Regional School Unit 18 meeting.

The $33 million school budget, which has been voted down twice by the district’s five towns — China, Belgrade, Sidney, Oakland and Rome — was also on the agenda, but the discussion about school curriculum delayed budget discussion by hours.

Several parents urged the board to reconsider a long-planned shift to mass customized learning, an education method that moves away from some of the longest-held traditions of the American classroom.

The district will implement some facets of the program in the coming school year.

“You have been involved with this model for three years,” said parent Kara Grant. “You’ve had time to digest it.

“For us, this is a paradigm shift for our children. We’re asking for time,” she said.

Assistant Superintendent Linda Laughlin, who has been overseeing a three-year effort to train teachers how to best implement the education method, agreed to work with individual parents who are concerned about the change.

She said that parents can meet with her and request their children be kept in a more traditional classroom.

However, board members said that the process will not be stopped.

“We really shouldn’t hold back other students in the district, because we are ready,” Laughlin said. “We can’t undo this. It’s not fair to the other kids.”

The method, which is being implemented at schools across the state and the country, measures student achievement by how proficient they become in a subject, and resists moving them from grade to grade because of their age. Students move on in areas in which skills are strong and continue to work on areas in which skills have not yet been learned.

The idea has been lauded by educators, but the approach does away with the traditional age-segregated classrooms. In a fully realized application of the method, a student’s age will not be the biggest determinor of what grade that student is in, and the concept of grades becomes less important.

One resident said that her grandson, a fourth-grader, was upset because, despite strong grades, he was staying in the same homeroom class that he had as a third-grader.

Laughlin asked that parents in attendance not actively lobby other parents to keep their students out of the new system.

“Generally, parents are comfortable enough with this to let us try it,” Laughlin said.

Board Chairwoman Laura Tracy said that it would become increasingly difficult to accommodate large numbers of requests from parents.

Board members and parents all expressed frustration with communication difficulties related to the complex topic.

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