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MCPS administration building

The Missoula County Public Schools’ administration building on South Sixth Street West

Elementary and middle schoolers will have new curriculum materials starting next school year, Missoula County Public School trustees decided Tuesday night.

Trustees did not vote on whether to adopt new materials for the county's high schools, instead allowing a trial year where teachers can opt in. The extra year will give teachers and students time to experience and evaluate the materials before trustees decide whether to adopt them universally.

The new materials for elementary schools, which include ReadyGEN, Daily 5 and the Independent Reading Level Assessment, were recommended by an English language arts task force that has been working for the past two years to find ways to improve MCPS curriculum and give students a more uniform quality of education across the district's schools and classrooms.

Elise Guest, director of teaching and learning for the district, and the task force, composed of 24 MCPS teachers, conducted an audit in the 2016-17 school year of current English curriculum. It found that teachers in elementary and middle schools use about seven different curriculum materials. 

Some elementary school teachers told the task force they spend so much time creating their own materials and lesson plans that they don’t have enough time to address student needs, Guest told the trustees in May. High school English teachers unanimously reported using "novel studies," or reading and analyzing novels, as well as plays, poetry and other literature.

Elementary trustees unanimously supported adopting the new materials recommended by the task force. The agenda item didn't garner much discussion, as the support from teachers at that level has been positive. Superintendent Mark Thane said he surveyed all K-5 English language arts teachers in the district several weeks ago, and more than 80 percent voted in favor of adopting the three curriculum items.

“I'm excited about the idea of there being greater consistency from school to school,” said Trustee Grace Decker. “Kids move around a lot in the district, and as they do they encounter really different experiences at different schools, sometimes to a level that's pretty startling to parents.”

Decker said it's important to her that teachers love what they're doing, and that they are supportive of the new materials they'll be using.

“It's difficult to adopt something and implement it with enthusiasm and fidelity if you don't feel that that's your choice as a teacher.”

During the discussion of the recommended new materials for middle schools — which is the New York Education Department's free program EngageNY — trustees brought up the mixed reaction they've heard from parents, teachers, and university professors.

Trustee Diane Lorenzen said she wished trustees didn't have to vote on the recommendation for middle school materials yet, and that it would be better to have a year of evaluating the materials first, as the high schools are doing.

“This proposal has elicited a lot of very heartfelt response from the intellectual community in Missoula, and a sense that they don't feel this is right for Missoula," she said. "I'm disappointed in the form of the question because all we can do is vote yay or nay for EngageNY. I don't feel that that's fair to us.”

Thane said the middle school teachers surveyed also expressed a lot of support for EngageNY, and some were already using those materials anyway. Trustee Decker said the public comment around EngageNY has been somewhat overwhelming, but the opposition to the materials seemed to apply more to their adoption in high schools, not middle schools.

“We only hear what we hear, and what I didn’t hear was a lot of concern around the (grades) 6 to 8 adoption.”

Lisa Hendrix, principal at CS Porter Middle School, read a letter to the trustees strongly urging them to adopt the new materials, and expressing support from many teachers at her school. After working for many years in the district and witnessing changes in curriculum review processes, she said the main difficulty throughout this process has been communication between the task force and teachers at their respective schools.

“In my opinion, the process or the curriculum materials are not the root of the problem, the lack of communication by all task force members is the foundation of the problem which has led us to this situation,” she said.

That said, her teachers are very supportive of adopting EngageNY, saying it provides ample supports for both struggling learners and higher level learners.

Rattlesnake Elementary Principal Pam Wright said her fifth-grade teachers at Rattlesnake use EngageNY, and have seen great improvement in students' enthusiasm for school. She said the lessons require a lot of work from teachers, and can't just be taken out of the box and followed like a script. She also said students don't have to leave the classroom for alternative assignments if they can't keep up, because the materials account for students at different levels.

“When I started walking into these classrooms, I saw an energy and an excitement that I had not seen anywhere else,” she said. “The texts are beautiful, the books are beautiful, and the ideas are big with this.”

All elementary trustees voted in favor of the curriculum material adoption in middle schools except trustee Lorenzen.

Trustees discussed the recommendation to adopt EngageNY in high schools, but did not take a vote as it was an information-only item.

Thane said so far, 20 English language arts teachers have decided to opt in to using EngageNY in the coming school year, and their feedback will inform the administration’s recommendations the following year. He said all of Hellgate High School's English language arts teachers have opted in, though that doesn't mean all of them are in support of the materials.

The bulk of the opposition to EngageNY has come from high school teachers and parents, who cite several issues with the program, which provides 45-minute lesson plans for each class period. Among the concerns, teachers cited scripted lesson plans, a significant reduction in the number of full novels to be read (from a minimum of 16 at Sentinel to just two by the time students graduate), and little room for teacher creativity.

Trustees discussed the importance of collecting quantitative and qualitative data from students and teachers who use EngageNY in the next year. Several trustees said they were grateful to have more time to evaluate whether the materials are right for Missoula schools.

Trustee Decker said it's important to listen equally to teachers who do and don't opt in.

“Going forward, I want to really make sure that if we're treating this as an open question, that it is. If we move into the year with the idea that teachers who are opting in have a level of support and input and backing that other teachers don't have in what it is that they're pursuing, it's not as open a question as it might be. If we are taking time to explore, it can't just be taking time to convince.”

Trustee Jennifer Newbold asked that there be a focus on gathering data on the specific areas of concern that have been expressed to the trustees, such as how much flexibility teachers have while using EngageNY, and the impact of the reduced number of novels students read. Newbold said she understands the importance of including more technical reading to prepare students for college, but that doesn't necessitate eliminating novel studies.

“I still have huge reservations and just kind of fundamentally disagree with this whole notion that we are shifting away from studying the humanities in general, because I feel that in order to be a good citizen and to be cultural aware, and to have empathy, and to understand other perspectives, that that piece of our education is critical,” she said.

Superintendent Thane acknowledged how difficult the review process has been, and said it’s likely because of how important curriculum materials are for everyone in the district.

“The bottom line for all of us, whether it's the people who authored the letters, whether it's the staff members who made public comment, or whether it’s the task force who made the presentation, all of us share a common goal, and that is the best outcome for students," he said. "If we remain focused on that as we go through the next year, I'm confident we're going to come out well.”

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Missoulian.