As Westerville students begin a new school year, many will notice a new focus in their math and language arts classrooms.

As Westerville students begin a new school year, many will notice a new focus in their math and language arts classrooms.

The district continues to align its curriculum to the Common Core state standards, which all Ohio school districts are required to have in place by the 2014-2015 school year to coincide with new, more rigorous state assessments.

Students in grades three, four, five, seven and nine will see new language arts courses this year, and students in grades three, four and five will see new mathematics standards, as will students in Core Math 8, Algebra 1, Geometry and Honors Geometry.

There also will be changes to the kindergarten, fourth-grade and seventh-grade science courses and first-, second-, sixth- and ninth-grade social studies.

Science and social studies do not fall under the Common Core curriculum, but the district has updated its courses of study to better align with state standards as it overhauls the curriculum to meet Common Core guidelines, said district Curriculum and Instruction Services Director Jennifer Knapp.

The district got a head start on implementing Common Core, introducing classes aligned with the new standards in the 2011-2012 school year.

In fact, students who began as kindergarteners that year will have had only Common Core instruction when they sit down to take the new tests next year, Knapp said.

While Common Core faces many critics and skeptics, the success of those students has been evident to Westerville teachers and staff, said Elementary Academic Affairs Executive Director David Baker.

"We started with kindergarten. They were the pioneers, and they were nervous about it, but at the end of two years, the competency was there," Baker said.

In fact, Knapp said she and the district's administrative team are excited about the switch to Common Core because it institutes more rigorous standards aimed at better preparing students for college or post-high school careers.

"The standards are anchored in college and career readiness and having college and career readiness be part of the K-12 conversation," Knapp said. "Knowing the end result will be increased achievement for our students, it keeps everyone on the ground."

With language arts, Common Core focuses more intensely on fostering great readers, Knapp said. There's increased focus on writing, grammar, vocabulary and research.

In math, Common Core focuses on reasoning and problem-solving rather than on a concrete set of steps that must be followed to find an answer, Knapp said.

"The way in which we're approaching math is no longer restrictive," Knapp said. "You should walk into a math class and kids are talking and in groups (about solving problems)."

In all areas, the state has instituted fewer testing standards with the goal of increasing mastery and fluency in the areas that are taught, Knapp said.

"Now, instead of these (state testing) indicators that seem to go on and on, we have fewer standards with better focus," Knapp said.

The district does still have some way to go in instituting the Common Core standards for the next school year.

New curricula must be adopted for sixth- and seventh-grade math, seventh-grade accelerated math, Algebra 2 and Financial Algebra, as well as eighth- and 10th-grade language arts. New elective courses will be instituted to align with English III.

The district also will continue professional development with teachers to help them implement Common Core in the classroom, and district leaders will continue to work with parent groups to prepare them for the new curriculum as well, Knapp said.

Thus far, Baker said, the district is proud of the work it has done to phase in the new curriculum to prepare for next year's new Ohio assessments.

"Other districts have learned of the transition we're doing (and have asked) advice ... because we've been working on this for a few years," Baker said.

There have been Common Core critics in the Ohio Statehouse who have moved to block implementation of the curriculum, but Knapp said Westerville stands by the changes the district has made because they will increase student achievement.

"Because they were so intense in planning the curriculum, it would be difficult for us not to support a curriculum that makes our students college and career ready," Knapp said. "For us, (the state standards) are better than what we had before."