The Waco Independent School District is preparing a new, centralized district curriculum program, while simultaneously grappling with reopening schools in the fall and the backslide in knowledge many students likely experienced after campuses closed this spring.
Gov. Greg Abbott and state Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced last month that students will return to schools in person in the fall.
The Texas Education Agency planned to release public health guidelines last week, along with standards for attendance, enrollment and remote instruction for the upcoming school year, but the agency did not provide public health guidelines as planned, leaving school districts waiting to solidify plans for the 2020-21 school year.
School districts must offer in-person instruction in the fall, but families may request their students receive remote instruction, which can be either synchronous, involving real-time interaction with teachers, or asynchronous, which might involve reading assignments or watching a prepared video from the teacher, according to instruction guidelines released by the TEA.
Waco ISD started preparing in February to switch to a new instructional initiative under Superintendent Susan Kincannon that would align the timing of lessons in each grade level, but then spring break came, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the district to wait to implement the new curriculum model.
The new model, which will align each grade level’s curriculum so that students are being taught the same lessons at the same time, is especially important in Waco ISD because so many students transfer between schools, Kincannon said.
Waco ISD’s student mobility rate for the 2018-19 school year was 26%, while the state average was 15.4%, according to the district.
“In developing a curriculum for a school district that has a high mobility rate, the scope and sequence document becomes critical because we don’t want students to have gaps,” she said.
For instance, if students transfer from Parkdale Elementary, where they are currently learning division, to Kendrick Elementary, then they would not be lost in their new class, even though the teacher may teach the same lesson in a different way, Kincannon said.
“We’re not asking teachers to teach concepts in the exact same way,” she said. “But we’re asking teachers with a scope and sequence document to teach concepts at the same time so that if students move from one campus to another, they don’t miss any portion of the state-required content.”
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction Deena Cornblum and Executive Director for Curriculum & Professional Development Keonna White, both new hires by Kincannon, are leading the district through the transition.
“In a district like ours where we have a lot of mobility,” Cornblum said. “We just have to ensure that we are doing everything we can to not create gaps but to fill gaps for our students.”
Part of the reason Waco ISD has such a high mobility rate is that it offers choice programs at Lake Air Montessori Magnet School and Hillcrest Elementary School, according to the district’s demographer, Templeton Demographics. For the most recent school year, Waco ISD had about 1,450 elementary-level students, about 19%, transfer to a school they were not zoned to attend.
The same pattern follows for middle and high school students. About 27%, more than one in four, middle school students attend a campus they are not zoned to attend, Templeton Research Manager Michelle Box said. About 17% of all high school students attend a school they are not zoned to attend, with most of those students choosing to transfer to University High. About 22% of students zoned to go to Waco High attend a different school.
“The administration works diligently to plan for the number and needs of students attending their campuses, and high levels of mobility make this planning more difficult and unpredictable, including making it more difficult to forecast future enrollment at each campus,” Box said.
Cornblum has been working with a limited number of curriculum coordinators and districtwide instructional coaches so they can practice social distancing while delving deeply into each subject area rewriting curricula with updated requirements from the state. They have also been aligning resources for teachers and redoing assessments to ensure teachers have the things they need to plan lessons and teach in the fall.
“Curriculum writing on any day is a huge task,” Cornblum said. “We have a smaller group tackling the same amount of work.”
Meanwhile, White has been doing virtual lesson plan training and aligning the district’s tests that are given in the classroom to determine whether students have mastered the subject matter. The assessments will be critical to teachers’ future lesson planning to fill in any gaps for students, especially since teachers will not know how large those gaps may be when students return in the fall.
“What am I looking for? I put this assignment in front of the student, so what does success look like?” Cornblum said. “As a teacher, what am I expecting in the student responses to ensure that they really are able to show mastery, not just the right answer? The question is never going to be asked any one way, but if your students really show mastery or understand a concept at a deep level, then it shouldn’t matter how a question is posed.”
With limited staff able to meet, both Cornblum and White are focusing on elementary school reading and math; middle school reading, math, social studies and science; and high school English. The district will fold in other subject areas next summer.
“We have professional development planned around the curriculum so that teachers who have new curriculum will have days where they have some training that introduces it to them,” Cornblum said.
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