School board hears from curriculum staff
The Forest Lake school system has 6,000 students attending eight elementary schools, two junior highs, an alternative learning center and a high school. Making sure all these students get the academic content they need is the job of Jennifer Tolzmann, director of teaching and learning, and three teachers on special assignment as curriculum coordinators: Diane Giorgi, Joe Mueller and Brad Ward.
At the Dec. 19 school board meeting, Tolzmann expressed gratitude that the curriculum department has been restored after recent budget cuts.
In order to keep more teachers in classrooms during budget cuts, in the 2010-11 school year the curriculum department was reduced from 4.0 to 1.5 full-time-equivalent coordinators. For the 2011-12 school year, the number was reduced to zero.
Going from four full-time to three half-time to none, Tolzmann wrote, “had a significant impact on professional development offerings and support to teachers.”
In the second semester of 2012-13 the district reinstated two coordinators, and this year there are three full-time staff.
Giorgi has worked at the elementary level since beginning in the district in 1984, serving as classroom teacher, gifted resource teacher and technology specialist. Mueller has been an English teacher at the high school since 2006. Ward, a high school biology teacher, has been in the secondary science department since 1991.
Their job responsibilities include planning and implementing staff development at all levels, working with all content areas in the curriculum review cycle, coordinating and leading district department chairs, providing support for gifted services and immersion programming, coordinating the district’s mentoring program for new teachers and facilitating instructional technology services.
Tolzmann said a curriculum review cycle that repeats every five years was started about 12 years ago to align instruction across the district. Last year, she said, after the district had completed two full cycles and was starting a third, the group realized they needed a new direction: curriculum mapping.
She explained the four parts. Phase 1, intended curriculum, is the standards the instruction is intended to meet.
Phase 2, taught curriculum, is how the instruction is delivered.
“We’re trying to be more consistent,” she said, so that all students taking a course are exposed to the same content.
Phase 3 shows gaps in student achievement, based on test results.
Phase 4 addresses what worked and what didn’t.
Mueller and Ward presented information about the curriculum development process and the technology that helps them manage it.
In the past, Ward said, curriculum records were stored in file cabinets or on teachers’ computers. Now they are stored in one software package that all teachers can access.
The state and national standards for each subject and grade are often difficult to understand, he said.
“They’re written in almost a foreign language sometimes,” he said. “The sixth-grade standards are unintelligible to the average sixth-grader.”
The process includes figuring out what the standards mean and converting them to kid-friendly terms.
Mueller repeated Tolzmann’s emphasis on consistency. The same test or evaluation process is used for all students taking a class, he said. This way the district prevents large differences between schools, “so your ZIP code doesn’t determine what kind of education you get.”
Even in the same school, he said, there are differences between teachers. In high school English, for example, if one teacher is very effective at teaching metaphor, the other English teachers can explore this and make changes to their own offerings.
But the system is not designed to make all teachers deliver content in the same way.
“We’re not making automatons,” Ward said. He reassures teachers, “It’s not about style.”
The education technology that helps the district achieve curriculum goals is the Rubicon Atlas Curriculum Management System, an interactive online curriculum repository. Rubicon is an educational technology services firm that partners with public and private schools around the world to plan and implement Web-based curriculum mapping.
Because all information is electronic, it’s easy for teachers to search for standards met and not met, to find out which courses include the same topic, to see the entire sequence that includes the course they teach.
Atlas also brings teachers and administrators together so they can collaborate. Teachers can see what other teachers are doing and have the opportunity to work together for an interdisciplinary approach.
“PE teachers can talk about what they do and the length of each unit,” Mueller said, and there have been “amazing conversations between the two junior highs” in the language arts department. “It’s been really inspiring.”
Ward added, “I have never seen this much curricular interaction from people in different buildings.”
In District 831, several departments are already immersed in the new process. English/language arts, math, science and social studies have been brought on board. The art, music and physical education/health departments were recently immersed in the new system, and agriculture, business, family and consumer science, industrial technology and world languages will begin at the Jan. 20 in-service day.
The main focus so far is on required courses at the secondary level, but for social studies, the elementary standards and goals are included. Over time, more elementary and elective courses will be added.
A major advantage of using Atlas, Tolzmann said, is that every teacher is engaged and involved, instead of one teacher representing each departmental or age group.
When she hears remnants of the past, such as “I’m not on the curriculum review committee,” she responds, “You’re involved in teaching the curriculum.”
Another advantage is efficiency. In the past, figuring out what standards were met and writing the report involved an arduous multi-day check-off process. Now it takes 35 minutes, the curriculum staff said.
“We knew there were better ways to do this,” Superintendant Linda Madsen said. “It’s about resources.”
East Metro Integration District membership is the reason Forest Lake can take advantage of this product, Madsen said. That group is a collaborative effort that fosters voluntary integration among St. Paul Public Schools and nine suburban school districts.
A few years ago, Tolz-mann explained, Rubicon Atlas was being used by one of the member districts. The integration district arranged a volume discount for all members and funded some initial training. Forest Lake uses part of the integration funding received through membership to pay for Atlas.