getting to the core

Newly hatched Common Core curriculums get city endorsement

For the first time since 2003, the Department of Education has revised its curriculum recommendations for schools.

The new recommendations are meant to guide schools through the myriad curriculum options on the market to those that best reflect new learning standards known as the Common Core. Students across the state are set to take math and reading tests aligned to the tougher new standards in April.

After scrutinizing 40 programs produced by 19 companies that met the city’s basic standards, teachers and Department of Education officials endorsed elementary and middle school reading and math programs from three of the largest publishing companies, including Pearson, which is also producing the state tests. The city is also encouraging schools to consider adopting literacy curriculums that the state hired two nonprofit organizations, Core Knowledge and Expeditionary Learning, to produce.

Schools don’t have to take the department’s advice. They can use other curriculum programs, including the ones that they have already been using, or create their own materials. Currently, about 70 percent of schools opt to use the city’s recommended curriculums, which for most schools were originally required a decade ago in one of former chancellor Joel Klein’s earliest initiatives.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew, who has criticized the city and state for holding teachers accountable for adapting to the Common Core without giving them a curriculum based on the standards, said today’s announcement represented a major step forward.

“While it comes too late to help the kids for this year’s tests, the DOE’s announcement is a welcome acknowledgment that teachers need curriculum that will help their students meet the demands of tests based on the new Common Core standards,” Mulgrew said. But he said the union worried about the materials’ costs, quality, and availability in time for the new school year.

Department officials said they had considered those issues and addressed them. The programs that the city is endorsing were screened precisely for their quality and availability, they said, and purchasing them likely won’t cost schools more than they would spend on curriculum materials anyway.

The estimated $56 million price tag, which would be covered by a mixture of state textbook funding and city funds, is about the same that schools typically spend on similar curriculum materials, according to Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. The money would go to Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scholastic, the three corporations that produced the recommended curriculums.

In contrast, the state is using federal Race to the Top funds to produce its materials in-house. “The city is going to be purchasing content curriculum from vendors, and while I applaud them, I want everyone to know who’s listening here or across New York State, that if you simply cannot afford to buy curriculum from Pearson, there is content and curriculum available free to every person in this state,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said today at a forum about the Common Core.

But the state is providing only some of the materials schools would need to adopt its recommended curriculum options. The state has published the reading list for the Core Knowledge elementary school literacy program, for example, but schools would still have to buy the books and print the worksheets. “You can imagine the challenges just in the photocopying,” said Josh Thomases, the department’s deputy academic officer.

Principals have already gotten warnings that they should plan to devote their state textbook funds next year — about $60 per student — to Common Core-aligned materials. This week’s department newsletter told them to pour their remaining funds for this year into materials for other subjects.

Among the biggest advantages of the city’s recommended programs is that they will be ready in time for teachers to familiarize themselves with the materials before school resumes in September. The state’s curriculum materials won’t be complete until at least the end of the year.

“We think the sample units we’ve seen are really strong,” Polakow-Suransky said about the state’s materials. But he said, “In terms of schools making decisions and planning and preparing for next school year, it’s tricky to go with that timeline.”

Starting next week, the department will introduce principals to the new options. Later in March, the department will share its analysis of where curriculums that schools are already using match the standards, and where they fall short. Then, in April, schools will send teams to a citywide fair where curriculum providers hawk their products. By the end of May, schools will have made their purchasing decisions for next year, and in June, some of the materials are set to start arriving. Training will start over the summer and last into the school year.

Those materials were heavily influenced by the city’s own standards and by a 30-district pact not to buy curriculum materials unless they are truly aligned to the Common Core, Thomases said. In math, he said, the department was looking for fewer topics and an especially strong foundation in fractions. In reading, it wanted materials that included both fiction and non-fiction and required students to read texts multiple times, he said. In both subjects, the department was especially eager to identify curriculums that are versatile enough for New York City’s diverse student population.

Scholastic’s Codex program, which the department is recommending for middle school English classes, does a particularly good job of introducing vocabulary in a way that would be useful for English language learners, according to Nancy Gannon, executive director of the department’s Office of Academic Quality.

The department did not recommend any curriculum materials for high schools because a search did not turn up anything up to par, Polakow-Suransky said. But he said there was less urgency to roll out new materials in high schools because their exams are not yet being introduced. The first high school test to be tied to the Common Core will be ninth-grade algebra, next year.

At M.S. 244 in the Bronx, lead math teacher Scott Gallagher said he used an older version of the city’s new middle school math recommendations 10 years ago. “I can see why they’re recommending it for the Common Core,” Gallagher said today. “It emphasizes problem-solving as opposed to practicing math skills.”

“I definitely would be interested in revisiting,” Gallagher said. He said his teachers have found it challenging to cobble together Common Core-aligned material for every subject from different sources. It has been easy to find material on some topics — such as ratios and proportions — but harder for others, he said.

“If they have something that’s comprehensive and coherent under one program, that would make it more coherent for teachers and students,” he said about what the department is recommending.

But Polakow-Suransky said trading up to a curriculum that’s more closely aligned to the Common Core would not propel a struggling school to success by itself.

“Curriculum is not a magic bullet,” he said. “You can find plenty of schools across the country and plenty of districts across the country that have great curriculum, and kids don’t do well.”

He added, “It’s an important resource but let’s not overstate it either. It’s one of the pieces of the puzzle that’s going to be helpful as we make this transition.”

 

First Person

I was too anxious to speak in class. Then the adults at my school teamed up to help me.

PHOTO: Getty Images

“Which group wants to present first?” the teacher said.

That day, the whole school had worked on mini-projects in groups, and now it was time to share our work with students from different grades. I was surrounded by a lot of faces I had never seen before. I was only a freshman and everything felt new.

My heart started beating fast, like it was trying to pop out of my chest. I started sweating, even though the air conditioner was on. I tried to dry my trembling, clammy palms by rubbing them against my pants. I wanted to raise my hand and say I wasn’t feeling well, but my mouth clamped shut and it felt like gravity made it impossible for me to lift my arm.

Usually I would get a little nervous when I had to do presentations, but I could always get through them. This day was different.

When the teachers closed the classroom doors, I felt trapped. I wanted to run outside, take a deep breath of fresh air, and calm down. To distract myself, I started to pinch my arm under the table. Then it was my group’s turn, and somehow my legs managed to make the motions to get me in front of the class.

When it was my turn to speak, the words I was supposed to say didn’t come out. I froze. Finally a familiar voice brought me back to reality. It was one of my groupmates presenting my part for me.

After we returned to our seats, I hugged my book bag. It wasn’t as soft as my pillow, but it was the only comfort I was able to find. I stared at the floor, which seemed like the only thing in the room that wasn’t disappointed in me. Once the bell rang I speed-walked past everyone to the train. As soon as I got home, I cried.

Unfortunately, memories of that awful afternoon stayed with me. I began to panic every time I had to talk to new people, which had never been a problem for me before.

The night before a presentation I wouldn’t be able to sleep or eat. I was afraid to tell my teachers how I was feeling; I didn’t want to be seen as asking for special treatment. Fortunately, when I did presentations, I managed not to freeze like before, but I still got incredibly nervous and sometimes stuttered out my words. If I had the choice, I’d make sure I wouldn’t have a speaking part in group presentations.

In 10th grade, my English class read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I thought it was going to be just another lame book, especially since I hated reading. But when we finished the first chapter I felt the main character, Charlie, was speaking directly to me. It’s made up of letters he writes to an anonymous person. Charlie has a hard time talking about his emotions. When something bothers him, he stays quiet.

As an introvert, I related to Charlie. Besides the anxiety I got around presentations, I often felt bad about myself. So I decided to write an honest letter to someone I trusted: my English teacher, Ms. Boeck. I wrote about all my insecurities: my weight and my appearance, and how I felt worthless. While I was writing, I realized that I was depressed, my anxiety was getting worse, and I needed to get help.

I woke up early so I could approach Ms. Boeck before class. As I stood in front of her door, I got the sudden urge to turn around and throw out my letter. But then I remembered why I had written to her. I could tell she cared for each student, and I had seen other kids go to her for help.

I walked into the classroom and Ms. Boeck greeted me with a smile. All I had to do was give her the letter I was clutching tightly in my right hand. I knew this was the first step toward letting go of the pain in my chest that came from silently holding onto my struggles.

“This is a letter I wrote explaining something personal about me, and I wanted you to read it so you can help me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“Thank you, I’ll make sure to read it.” My teacher smiled and held eye contact, as if to assure me that whatever I’d written, she and I were going to find a solution together.

Around that time, I also told one of my closest friends about my anxiety. She understood, even though she didn’t have anxiety herself.

“Don’t worry, Natalie,” she said. “If you need help, you can come to me.” For the first time, I felt supported by people who cared about me.

After Ms. Boeck read my letter, she invited me and my friend to have lunch with her in her classroom. I learned that Ms. Boeck had also been diagnosed with anxiety. I couldn’t believe it, since she spoke with confidence in class.

Two weeks later I wrote another letter to my crew leader, Mr. Afghahi. Unlike the letter to my English teacher, this one acknowledged that I’d been having suicidal thoughts.

I found Mr. Afghahi in the hallway on a Friday after school. “I wrote you a letter,” I said.

“Is something wrong?”

I shook my head no as he took the letter. I left before he could ask any more questions.

On Monday morning Mr. Afghahi pulled me aside. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” he said. “The part of your letter about your suicidal thoughts concerned me. I don’t want to lose your trust, but I think it’s best if you go see a counselor who can help you. ”

I nodded. I didn’t want to speak to a stranger, but I knew it was the right decision.

A few days later, Mr. Afghahi walked me to the counselor’s office. She introduced herself with a warm, welcoming grin that showed all her teeth. I forced a smile.

After Mr. Afghahi left, the counselor talked about my letter as if she had memorized every word. It made me uncomfortable. I had only intended for Mr. Afghahi to know these things.

As I looked around the counselor’s office, a photo of her and her daughter caught my attention. It made me imagine the sadness a parent must feel when their child tells them about the kinds of feelings I was having. I pictured my mother with sorrow in her eyes.

The counselor asked me to clarify what I meant by suicidal thoughts, and when my depression and anxiety started. My vision began to blur as tears started forming, but I managed not to cry.

She told me I had to talk to my parents. In fact, the school required their approval for me to keep seeing her. I didn’t want my parents to know because they already came home tired and stressed. I wanted to be the “perfect daughter” to make their lives easier. I was also nervous because they were too busy to come to my school, and they don’t speak much English.

When I got home, my mom told me to go with her to her doctor’s appointment. In the empty waiting room, I told her that I was going through a tough time in school and felt anxious and depressed. I looked down when I saw her eyes redden and the first tear roll down her cheek. I had seen her cry before, but I had never been the reason.

I wanted to cry too, but I held it in. I felt as if my mom was asking herself what she’d done wrong, which broke my heart. My mom wrote a letter in Spanish saying I could see the counselor.

Over time, talking to my counselor got easier. After a month, I felt comfortable expressing myself to her. I even consider her a friend. Talking about my insecure feelings has helped me understand them better. I feel better about my appearance. The counselor made me do an exercise where I had to consider the positive aspects of my body, which helped me a lot. I’m less anxious now and I don’t feel as depressed. I keep my mind busy and have more support and people to talk to than I did before.

The counselor also taught me breathing exercises that help me calm down when I’m anxious. I close my eyes, inhale, and wait for two seconds to release the breath. When I close my eyes it feels like the world has stopped. No one else is around; it’s just me and my blank mind. My body is no longer tense. The silence is comfortable, not awkward. When I exhale, I feel like I’m letting go of everything that made my day bad.

Now I encourage myself to try new ways to practice speaking in front of people. I’ve started participating in Socratic seminars, which are open-ended discussions we have in class. I make sure I’m prepared and say something, even if I’m feeling nervous. Though I still don’t speak a lot, I usually get at least one idea out.

I’m a junior now, and hopefully by the end of the year I will be able to speak at least three times in one discussion. I still get really nervous in large groups and new situations. But when I feel like running away, I think of the progress I’ve made. I may still stutter or mess up in a presentation, but at least now I know that I’ve tried.

It was hard to open up, but having people to talk to about my anxiety has been a big help. Besides my counselor, I’ve told some other friends, though I didn’t go into the details. I also talk to my three brothers now, and they help boost my confidence and make me feel safe. My parents know about my anxiety, but I only tell them about my accomplishments, like participating in a discussion, so they are able to feel proud of me.

Now, before I have to give a presentation, I do things to prepare and feel more confident. I drink water to hydrate my body, do my breathing exercises in a quiet area, and practice my presentation with a friend. This year, we had to give another group presentation like the one on that awful day when I was a freshman. When it came to my part, all my fears went away, and I spoke loud and proud.

Natalie Castelan is a student at Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in Brooklyn. This piece originally appeared in YC Teen, a project of the nonprofit Youth Communication. 

the best

Indy counselors share secrets to get middle schoolers on track for college scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkebat
Students at Northwest Middle School

Indiana makes a promise to students from low-income families: maintain a 2.5 GPA and fulfill basic steps throughout high school, and the state will foot the bill for up to four years of college tuition.

But there’s a catch: For students to qualify for the aid, they must sign up for 21st Century Scholarships by the end of eighth grade, before many students even begin considering how to pay tuition. It falls on school counselors to let families know about the program, help them apply — and follow up relentlessly.

So it was a feat when counselors at Northwest Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools were able to get nearly 100 percent of eligible students to register for the scholarships in 2017, the latest year with state data. That’s nearly double the signup rate across Marion County.

Now, the city is hoping that other educators can learn from Northwest and other successful schools. In May, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration launched Indy Achieves, a campaign to help more residents go to college or other post-high school training. One piece of the initiative is a coordinated effort to boost participation in 21st Century Scholars that includes a newly released toolkit for other guidance counselors.

The toolkit explains how educators can track which students have enrolled in the program, and it includes sample recruitment plans and letters to parents. It also offers practical tips, such as giving parents the paper worksheet instead of asking them to apply online and sending the form home with other permission slips. Finally, Indy Achieves offers administrative assistance submitting applications.

“I’m here today in no small measure because you all have this process figured out,” said Hogsett in a ceremony Monday.

At Northwest, the campaign to get students money for college had two prongs. First, it depended on getting students, teachers, and even counselors excited about the scholarships, staff say. Classes competed against each other to see who could get the most students signed up, with the promise of a pizza party for the winning class.

Last year, they upped the ante by offering ice cream and candy bars to students when they brought in their applications. When students saw others getting the rewards, it was a reminder to bring in their own forms, said counselor Vernita Robinson.

It was also important that teachers were enthusiastic about the effort, say the counselors who led the initiative. Even the counselors developed a spirit of competition as they tried to sign up as many students as possible.

“You just have to make it fun for the kids, and you have to make it fun for yourself,” said counselor Theresa Morning.  “I don’t know if we really changed any of our methods last year except for, we made a point to make sure last year that we had every child signed up.”

That dedication to getting students signed up is the second reason why educators at Northwest believe they were so successful. Beginning in September, they told parents about the scholarships, and for months afterward, they used a spreadsheet to track which students had applied. They sent home official letters telling families about the program. And as the year progressed, they called families to follow up.

“I think the key is to not stop at a handful of applicants,” said counselor Nicole Reid. “Just keep going until you have everyone on your roster that’s in eighth grade enrolled.”

All three counselors have left the school for other Indianapolis Public Schools campuses this year, following a districtwide high school reconfiguration that ultimately led Northwest to convert from a school serving grades seven through 12 to a dedicated middle school.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson challenged the new students at the school to continue the success. “You all have to now carry on that legacy,” she said.

“We are all as a city committed to our students and our young people being able to go on and be successful,” Johnson said. “You do your part, and we commit to do ours.”