Westerville News & Public Opinion

Board adopts new curricula, plans materials purchase

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Westerville City School District officials made final adjustments to the secondary education curricula for next school year. These adjustments include necessary changes to align with state standards and introducing new courses.

As part of a statewide curriculum overhaul, state education officials revised the four curriculum cores -- social studies, science, math and English language arts -- and required districts to implement changes by next school year. The Westerville Board of Education voted and adopted the 2014-15 curricula at its meeting Monday, May 19.

Instead of customizing its own standard for English language arts and math, the state adopted the Common Core Standard in 2010. The standard sets achievement expectations for students by grade level between kindergarten and 12th grade.

It receives some mixed reviews from educational professionals and parents nationwide, but nevertheless, 44 states have adopted the optional standard.

The district made the necessary curriculum adjustments for high school and elementary school, but finalized sixth- and seventh-grade math courses in order to align with the standard.

"It is a realignment in particular because there are more content changes in K-8 than there are necessarily in the high school," said Jennifer Knapp, the district's director of curriculum and instruction. "The biggest shift is the inclusion of the eight mathematical practices and the understanding and helping students to be able to have those habits of mind."

The eight mathematical practices create Common Core's idea of conceptual understanding of math, which has been troublesome to some parents helping their children with homework. Parents are thrown off by questions that ask students to "write a number sentence" or "use number discs" for solving basic arithmetic.

What the math standard and questions are really asking is for students to show that they understand the notion of the math question, and not only how to "plug-and-chug away" numbers in a formula, Knapp said.

"Instead of the focus on the algorithm or the focus on memorizing process or steps, it's the conceptual understanding," Knapp said. "So you don't start teaching division of fractions by, 'Oh, you flip the second one then multiply,' but (by discussing) 'What does it mean to divide a fraction?' "

Board President Nancy Nestor-Baker said parents have expressed concern to her about the curriculum changes. She said part of the problem is parents and the community mixing up curriculum standards with resource materials.

Prior to the board approving both the curriculum and necessary resources, the board reviewed the new materials to ensure they reduce the mix-ups and that the materials help teachers and parents and not confuse them.

"Some of the stuff we've all seen online and in articles confuse the curriculum with the materials. It is an easy confusion to make because we see these types of problems posted online. These are often plucked from particular textbooks or worksheets," Nestor-Baker said. "It is one thing to have standards, but the delivery of the curriculum -- those are the pieces that need to be determined locally."

Knapp said the standards do not dictate how a teacher can teach or present material, but only outline required content points. Teachers are free to use their expertise to present the material in the best way.

However, since English language arts and math align with Common Core, the board voted 3-1 to approve the respective curricula changes and resource materials. Board member Carol French voted no, saying she does not agree with the state's new standard.

French said she doesn't like how parents struggle understanding the requirements or how teachers are expected to teach to the tests.

"I did look over the materials and my concern is still with Common Core and I cannot support it yet," French said. "I don't know if I'll ever get there."

Though not part of the Common Core, social studies and sciences also received fresh makeovers, too. Students will see new readings and authors for every subject, as well as be introduced to topics at different times than before to ensure proper building of understanding.

Nestor-Baker said with all the core curricula, she wants to see a big picture that shows progression and how each subject aligns horizontally within grade structure, but vertically, too.

"We want to make sure that we understand and have a clear concept of how the courses build on each other," Nestor-Baker said. "It can be very confusing to people because we had to do a lot of changing of this course and that course. It can rapidly appear that we have just a bunch of disjointed courses, which isn't the case at all."

Officials worked to align core curriculum with the state, but will also introduce new science courses that will provide students with a sample of potential career fields to explore.

In a study done by researchers at Harvard University, it showed that educators do not necessarily encourage two-year degrees or professional certificates. With the help of various grants and funds, the district will add introductory courses for students to explore possible career fields that require a certificate or two years of higher education.

"Our push in the past 10 or 15 years has been four-year college for everyone. What we've realized, and what this study realized, is that isn't necessarily the case," Knapp said. "Yes, post-secondary education is extremely important, but certificates and two-year degrees are where we are missing the mark with our students."

Next year, the district will offer introductory courses in advanced manufacturing, health careers, IT and logistics, which are four industries with high-demand jobs in central Ohio and may not require a four-year degree.

The idea is that these courses will help students as early as seventh grade get started on a particular career path, or maybe help them decide to avoid that path before starting college.

"They can have the experiences of knowing what it entails to get into advanced manufacturing and engineering and knowing if that is a path you want to take," Knapp said.

The school board voted 4-0 to approve the science and social studies curricula. Board member Rick Vilardo said he was thrilled about the new science courses offered next year.

"I have an English and literature degree, but I'm passionate about STEM," Vilardo said. "I really like what we're trying to unroll and challenge our students sooner. It's a pretty applicable and rigorous curricula."

The curriculum adjustments come at a cost. The district is working within its budget constraints, but will spend $900,000 a year for the next six years in books and resources. These include both hard copy texts and online subscription costs for students and teachers.

Since there are many changes coming in the next year, the board and school district employees encourage parents to contact their students' teachers for more information about curriculum changes.

"It has to be a very open discussion among all of us. It should never be felt that the teachers of the district or administrators don't care about their concerns because we do," Nestor-Baker said.

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