School Board adopts new literacy curricula

Minneapolis Public Schools

The Minneapolis Board of Education adopted new pre-K and K-5 literacy curricula at its June 13 meeting, to be implemented across the district this fall.

The board voted to enter into contracts with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Benchmark Education Company for pre-K and K-5 curricula, respectively. Teacher training began June 20, and implementation will begin in August.

Adopting new curricula was part of first-year Superintendent Ed Graff’s vision for improving student achievement, especially for students of color, who lag well behind their white peers. The district hadn’t purchased a new literacy curriculum since before 2010, and the old curriculum had not met state standards for years.

“Literacy is the cornerstone for all other levels of learning … in K-12 education or just education in general,” Chief of Schools Michael Thomas said at the May 30 School Board meeting, “and so we really wanted to approach this in a very comprehensive, in-depth way.”

The School Board had approved a partial new curriculum in June 2015, on the recommendation of ex-Interim Superintendent Michael Goar. But that curriculum became ensnared in controversy, after teachers discovered materials that contained racial stereotypes.

Community members voiced anger about the curriculum at School Board meetings in September 2015, at one point shutting a meeting down. Board members demanded an apology from Reading Horizons, the company behind the curriculum, while Goar acknowledged that the books were not comprehensively vetted. The board canceled its $1.2 million contract with the company that October.

The district restarted its search for a new curriculum this past October and field tested three finalists this past winter. It solicited feedback through community events, staff surveys and focus groups and had community content experts review the materials.

Community members and district staff spent hundreds of hours identifying materials they wanted to remove, supplement or change. They have worked with Benchmark on how to address those items, Macarre Traynham, executive director of the Teaching and Learning Department, told the School Board on May 30.

They’ve also worked to ensure that students see themselves and other cultures in the curricula, said Carey Seeley, director of the elementary education in the district’s Teaching and Learning Department.

“I can’t imagine anywhere in the United States that there would have been a more thorough vetting process,” Mary Hreha-Johnson, reading specialist at Cityview Community School, told the School Board.

Balanced literacy

Traynham’s Teaching and Learning Department developed a pre-K-12 literacy vision as part of the adoption process. The vision calls for MPS students to develop effective reading, writing, speaking and listening skills to become literate global citizens.

It also calls on the district to foster a culture of literacy, one in which classrooms have culturally relevant materials in which students see themselves. All teachers are supposed to be literacy instructors under the new vision.

Traynham, Graff and Thomas stressed that a new curriculum would not be a magic tool for improving student performance. The district will need to make modifications and adjustments Graff said, and the process of professional development will be ongoing.

“It at the very least gives teachers updated materials that are covering the Minnesota standards, which are state law,” Traynham said.

Seeley said in an interview that the hope is the curriculum will be a tool for teachers to implement balanced literacy and standards-aligned literacy instruction. “All of those things would ideally move into student achievement,” she said.

Balanced literacy is set up with the idea that students are working toward independence in reading and writing, Seeley said. A teacher might model a concept, and then the students would have an opportunity for guided practice and independent practice. Skills such as phonics, fluency and phonemic awareness are woven into the lessons.

Teacher feedback

Fifth-grade teacher Liz Kesler field tested the Benchmark curriculum in her classroom at Anne Sullivan Communication Center. She told the School Board that the students were more engaged with Benchmark materials and that she saw improvements in their close-reading skills, study habits and note taking.

Each lesson emphasized communication and collaboration and had opportunities for partner work and discussion, she said. The materials also allowed students to dig into universal human truths, such as the human will to survive and our responsibility in terms of new technologies.

“No matter where a student in coming from, these are concepts they can engage in,” she said.

One of her students was inspired to write a letter about his experience with the Benchmark curriculum. He wrote that he loved the curriculum because he could annotate his texts and there were pressure-free weekly assessments and opportunities for partner work.

Students will be able to write in their books and take them home, Traynham said. The books will also be available online, too.

Training began June 20

MPS’ contract with Benchmark, the K-5 literacy provider, is for about $9.5 million. Its contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the pre-K provider, is for about $450,000. It’ll pay the HMH contract over one year and the Benchmark contract over four years, Chief Financial Officer Ibrahima Diop told the School Board on June 13.

Professional development costs are built into the contracts, Traynham told the School Board.

Curricula typically last for six to eight years, Traynham said. Minnesota will be reviewing its English language arts standards during the 2019-20 school year, but Traynham expressed confidence that the new curricula would meet any new standards.

Training on the new curriculum started June 20 week with a language and literacy institute at North High School. More than 700 teachers and 50 administrators were scheduled to be in attendance. The district will hold another institute in August.

Educational support professionals will also be included in professional development, Thomas said. Graff said that the district is also looking at engaging in a literacy campaign that would look at the notion of how parents can access literacy for their children.