The Sitka School District is moving ahead with plans to implement a new English Language Arts curriculum in the elementary grades — at a cost expected to be somewhere around $250,000.
Despite controversy over the expense, teachers in the lower grades told the school board Monday night (5-2-16) that they thought the new materials would ultimately benefit students.
Superintendent Mary Wegner stressed that bringing new curriculum into the schools was bottom-up. Teachers at Keet Gooshi Heen and Blatchley have been piloting several possible programs this past fall and spring, to help students meet state education standards adopted three years ago.
“I did not say anything other than, Make a decision and I will support your process. There’s never a time when 100-percent of teachers will be behind anything. As there’s no time when 100-percent of anybody is behind everything. But clearly the schools that have decided to recommend a program for purchase, the clear majority of teachers have made that decision on their own without any directive or anything from me. And we have two of our five schools who have decided not to, and they’ve been completely supported in that process.”
Teachers at the two high schools — Sitka High and Pacific High — opted to pull together their own resources to teach Alaska’s new English Language Arts standards. But in the elementary grades, it’s a different story.
“I’m Cindy Duncan. I’m a second-grade teacher and I was fortunate enough to pilot a program and I fell in love with it. My students fell in love with it. And it was very powerful.”
Duncan likes a package published by National Geographic in particular. Like other elementary school teachers, she’s expected to teach all subjects and sees this curriculum as an important tool for teaching literacy.
“I was one that definitely thought we needed a program. Teaching all subjects is very overwhelming. So knowing that a program already has it laid out, and you can follow along. You can add to it. It saved me a lot of time, which I was able to put to other things in the classroom, which was also important.”
“I’m Misty Feenstra. I also piloted the program that Cindy’s talking about. It was a great program to see the kids actively engaged and learning, and they were so excited to see what we were going to read next. I’ve taught at schools where I’ve done both — without a program and with a program — and having a program and knowing that I’m going to cover everything that I need to cover, and I’m not going to leave anything out that’s going to be critical to my students — it was great knowing that with a program I can cover everything.”
But the National Geographic program wasn’t the pick in the middle school. Teachers there liked a series from Houghton-Mifflin called Collections.
“I’m Emily Demmert and I was able to pilot a program for the 8th grade language arts at Blatchley. What I appreciate about this program is that it’s aligned to the standards. The textbook is a great parent resource. I found that to be true teaching both high school and college. I find it useful especially as a framework, and I’m able to supplement materials as needed, so even though we’re reading four novels in a year, I’m also able to supplement things from the textbook. I really like the textbook because it requires students to answer higher-order thinking questions at the end of different texts. And it really helps students who are struggling readers to look for evidence in the text and to annotate text, and that’s something that they really need to do.”
These teachers, and several others at the meeting, made a strong case for acquiring new English Language Arts materials. The outstanding question now is expense. The district budget is tighter than ever. At public hearings this spring, the board heard some testimony suggesting that buying complete curriculums wasn’t necessary when teachers — if given time — could create their own.
Resident Rebecca Poulson articulated that idea during persons to be heard.
“Basically I feel we should rely on the professional expertise within the district to develop curriculum that will close the achievement gap, and be generally open to modifying what we’ve got.”
The district spent roughly $250,000 to buy new math curriculum materials last year. Superintendent Mary Wegner estimated that the ELA materials would cost about the same. But, as a former elementary school teacher herself, she defended the purchase.
“So there is this controversy about materials, or not materials? And I will just say that the research supports that teaching literacy — especially at those early grades — is a very complex task.”
The administration will develop a formal cost estimate for the new English Language Arts Curriculum for the board’s approval later this summer. The new materials will be in use by the start of the next school year.