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An Early-Implementation District

Promotes Staff Learning


Jim Rollins
Jim Rollins, superintendent in Springdale, Ark. 

A new era of education reform is at the schoolhouse door — the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Our school district is up to the challenge, and based on early experiences, our teachers and principals are excited about the potential payoff of this new initiative.

The Springdale School District, located in northwest Arkansas with about 21,000 students, has been the fastest-growing school system in Arkansas for more than a decade. The schools have become highly diverse and significantly poorer. That translates to the fact that we are educating a student body with numerous needs (cultural, health, language acquisition, educational, etc.).

For the last two years, implementing the Common Core State Standards has been our focus. During 2011-12, our district put in place the new standards in grades K-2. The teachers in these grades worked as a professional learning community to sort, select, innovate, implement, reflect and refine their work. This year we are creating fully developed units to support implementation, driven by the lack of existing resources that address the learning expectations.

External Support
Several examples of the challenges we confronted and the continuous-learning opportunities that helped us to address them stand out.

ELEMENTARY AND MIDDLE SCHOOL LEVEL. To understand what students are expected to know and be able to do, the district studied the documents provided by Achieve (www.achieve.org), The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (www.parcconline.org), the Publishers’ Criteria (www.corestandards.org/assets/Publishers_Criteria_for_3-12.pdf) and, of course, the Common Core frameworks documents themselves.

Shifts in the mathematics classroom have begun with the training and implementation of Cognitively Guided Instruction, which is a process for getting students engaged in mathematical thinking. The CGI model of curriculum development and instruction aligns with the Common Core. With an increased emphasis on mathematical practices, the problem-posing elements of CGI allow students to engage in the abstract reasoning, modeling and perseverance in problem solving that are inherent in the expectations for the Common Core State Standards.

Additionally, the downward shift in the level of mathematics for each grade level, particularly in the middle school, has required additional professional development for some teachers. The district has brought in experts in mathematics from the University of Arkansas to build up the content knowledge of our faculty, especially in the teaching of algebra and pre-algebra.

The shifts in the English language arts classroom require the realignment of materials to be used in the reading process. Each elementary and middle school is organizing units of study that use anchor books as suggested by the CCSS frameworks documents. In transitioning to literacy activities that lead to college- and career-readiness literacy levels, we are piloting instructional units from the Common Core Curriculum Maps project. This Gates Foundation-funded model has been used as a blueprint for getting students into the habits of mind required by the CCSS.

Teachers have received training in analytical reading and argumentative writing. Students now work on much more complex texts and arrive at a deeper understanding of the relationships among them.

Because effective writing skills are essential in the Common Core, all teachers are setting greater expectations for students to express their learning via “quick writes” or more formal research writing as required by the standards.

SECONDARY SCHOOL LEVEL. The next phase of our implementation of the Common Core State Standards is to ensure the faculty in grades 9-12 who teach science, social studies and career/technical subjects understand the requirements for their classrooms. The standards emphasize what we have long known — that the development of a student to be college- and career-ready is a shared responsibility across all content areas.

Toward this end, Springdale’s junior high and high school teachers are excited participants in two Gates Foundation-funded initiatives led by the Southern Regional Education Board.

The Literacy Design Collaborative provides training and tools (template tasks, modules and rubrics) that enable teachers to infuse Common Core literacy standards into science and technical courses while shifting to a more student-centered instructional model.

The Mathematics Design Collaborative provides similar training and tools for embedding Common Core math standards and strategies into both academic and career/technical courses. Teacher-developed modules in both projects will create an avenue for aligning our district’s curriculum to Common Core State Standards as we move toward 2013-14 implementation in grades 9-12.

Challenges Abound
The Common Core State Standards are more complex than they first appear. In the past, when new curriculum documents came forward from the Arkansas Department of Education, only minor changes were observed at the school level. The new standards are asking teachers to teach for a much greater depth of understanding on fewer topics. This is requiring a reconstruction of their lesson designs.

Additionally, we have not yet found a sufficient number of ready-made resources that align with the Common Core. Our existing reading and math books do not match up with the expectations for the new skills and higher levels of thinking demanded by the Common Core. Our faculty members are investing large amounts of time developing new instructional materials.

We are challenged to bring our parents along with us. Students’ work in the classroom is different, homework is not based on worksheets, and student assessments are not the same. This has caused some parents to question what is going on at school. While we have hosted parents meetings about these breaks from the norm, until every parent hears it, our communicating is not finished.

Change brings its own set of challenges. It is wise to keep everything as transparent as possible. It is important to stay connected to the instructional changes that are occurring in the classroom. Then, when questions arise in the community, we can answer with confidence that students are becoming college- and career-ready in our improved learning environments.

Enormous Potential
The impetus behind any meaningful change initiative is to constantly work toward school improvement, higher student achievement and better preparation of our students for a successful future. I like to say, “We are getting better at getting better,” and we are.

Our school district is continuously addressing the increased needs of our growing, highly diverse and increasingly poorer student body because our teachers, administrators, parents and school district partners are committed to the school system that serves our young people.

The Common Core State Standards offer enormous potential to move our schools forward.

Jim Rollins is superintendent in Springdale, Ark. E-mail: jrollins@k12.sdale.org


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