Curtis: Teachers initiated curriculum changes

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The origins of the new timetable for grades K-6 were explored at a school board work session last week.

Teachers packed into the board room at central office, and many of them had a chance to tell the board about their experiences in the class room since school started last month.

Director of schools Stan Curtis responded to probing questions from board member Craig Michael by explaining that at the summer meeting of the principals he gave them "four things I would like to see happening this year - the same four things that I wanted last year." These are: consistency in applying all policies; increased instructional time; application of interventions; and use of data to drive instruction.

"I asked principals to get together during the summer to address these issues," Curtis said. "That's how it came about."

"So the principals came up with it?" pressed Michael.

"My assumption is that," Curtis replied. "I didn't give that directive (to increase instruction time)."

"They came up with it and presented it to you?" asked chairwoman Ann Tears.

"That's correct," Curtis said.

He went on to point out that the curriculum hasn't changed - the curriculum is still within state guidelines. Only the amount of time spent on subjects other than math and reading has changed. Between them, the five elementary principals have "150 years" of experience, so Curtis said, "I feel like the principals made the appropriate call."

Michael voiced his concern that the school board was never made aware of what amounts to a major change.

"We talked about the importance of keeping the board informed," Michael said.

"What's sad is you take this job and get criticized for everything you do," complained Curtis. "I thought we were here for the children; to help them excel."

Board member Kristen Gold defended Curtis, saying, "I don't send my son (a 2nd grader) to school for PE, or playtime, or art and music - I send him for academics. Anything we can do to improve our schools and meet state standards is what we need to do. Educating children is our primary goal."

Tears reminded the group of the board's stated goals, which include "improve the academic standards of all sub groups and focus on interventions."

"We have to have buy-in from everybody," she said. "We need input from everyone affected. We can work together to make a happy compromise"

One of the teachers who addressed the meeting was Lori Beardsley, who teaches 6th grade math at Oak Grove. According to other teachers, Beardsley is known for the quality of her teaching, and also for her boundless enthusiasm and energy, but even she was disheartened.

"I'm give out - I'm tired - I've never been this way in my life," she said, near tears.

"That's what I've heard," said Michael. "I've spent time in the schools talking to teachers this week and they have tears in their eyes because of the stress on the kids. How did we get to that point?"

"I think I've answered that question," Curtis said. "My whole thing was the four things, especially increase interventions and more instructional time."

The teachers who spoke at the work session all asserted, "I'm going to do my job" and "I teach my heart out." None spoke of giving up, but among their negative comments were: "morale is rock bottom again," "our kids are shutting down," and "I can't imagine what a first-year teacher is feeling!"

"The principals did not want to make teachers' work harder," said Westhills Elementary principal Sherry Park. "I've invested my life in this system - let's work it out. It's breaking my heart: everything we do becomes a war. We got behind in technology and personal development and now we're in a mad race to catch up. It's killing me."

"I feel all of your pain - now we need to put our heads together and fix it," said board member Curt Denton.

"I agree," said Michael. "One of the reasons I voted for Curtis as director was because of his statement about how strongly he wanted teachers to be included before implementation of major changes. The clear fact is there was obviously no input from teachers. You cannot have success without input from everyone in the organization, especially your most valued asset: the teachers. There's no question that the number one factor in student achievement is the classroom teacher."

"There's clearly been a breakdown of communication between principals and teachers," said Gold. "I suggest that principals go back to the schools and work with their teachers. We do all want the same thing: to educate the children. It takes leadership at each school."

"It's all about team work," agreed Marshall Elementary principal Deborah Wade. "My job is to make sure my teachers are happy - happy teachers make happy children."

"Listening was a good experience," concluded board member Mike Keny. "There's distress. We need this year to be solid and stable and noncontroversial. It's not going to be a good year if morale is in the gutter and good teachers are lost. We've got to get everybody buying in; we've got to have compromise and discussion, or it's going to be terrible this year."

"Could you and the staff re-evaluate and schedule another work session?" board member Randy Perryman asked Curtis.

"No problem," the director replied.