A lesson plan for every student

District adds differentiation position to 2019-20 budget

Kenny Community School teacher Janee Rivard-Johnson says differentiating instruction helps keep students engaged in learning. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Teaching both advanced and struggling students simultaneously might seem like standard practice in the city’s schools.

But Walter Schleisman, principal at Lake Harriet Community School Upper Campus, said it’s more difficult than it appears.

“You have to set up the structure of your classroom so kids can work independently,” Schleisman said. “For some teachers, that’s a complete mind shift.”

Elementary and middle school teachers across Minneapolis Public Schools will soon have more help catering to students of all skill levels. Starting in the fall, every K-5, K-8 and 6-8 school in the district will be able to hire a half-time “differentiation specialist” — a licensed teacher who will help meet the varying academic needs of students. The nearly $2.6 million initiative comes as the district focuses on Superintendent Ed Graff’s priorities of literacy, equity, social-emotional learning and student supports.

It’s one piece of the district’s proposed $620.6 million 2019-20 general-fund budget, which Graff said will deliver a “sense of stability” to schools and district departments.

“We think this is a practical but much-needed addition to the work that we’re doing,” said Eric Moore, a member of the superintendent’s cabinet and interim chief of academics.

Moore said the specialists will coach teachers and implement strategies such as co-planning, co-teaching, co-assessing and general problem solving. He said the specialists should allow classroom teachers to spend less time looking for materials and more time tailoring instruction to students’ needs.

The specialists will be required to have an advanced-learner certificate or master’s degree-level training in gifted education, said Chris Ramsey, who heads the district’s K-8 talent development and advanced learner education programs. They will work with students at all levels, she said.

“This will be very focused on student need,” she said of the position.

Rivard-Johnson leads her class in a focusing exercise during a recent lesson. Photo by Nate Gotlieb
Rivard-Johnson leads her class in a focusing exercise during a recent lesson. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

A ‘long-term investment’

Ramsey said differentiation is a philosophy that teachers can use to help advanced learners, who can become anxious or show perfectionist tendencies if they aren’t challenged. She said the district sometimes assumes that students who are meeting or exceeding state standards are being challenged, though that’s not always the case.

About 60 percent of students in Southwest Minneapolis who took the 2018 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments met or exceeded state reading and math standards in 2018. That’s in line with statewide test scores, but significantly higher than citywide figures.

Ramsey said differentiation strategies can be used for any population of students, including those both ahead and behind. She said the position should allow teachers to take more risks and take more time to find out what interests students.

Moore called the position a “long-term investment” and said the district is trying to have a more systematic approach to meeting the needs of families.

Students in Rivard-Johnson's class work together to solve a worksheet during a recent math lesson. Photo by Nate Gotlieb
Students in Rivard-Johnson’s class work together to solve a worksheet during a recent math lesson. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Parental support

Some parents appear to appreciate the initiative. Kristin Farrell, a former high school teacher who has a kid at Hale Elementary School, said differentiation allows teachers to teach to the whole range of kids in their classroom. She said a specialist has time teachers don’t to take a curriculum and separate it for students in different levels.

Farrell is part of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented — Minneapolis Chapter. The group advocated last year for MPS to put a half-time advanced differentiation specialist in each school.

Last February, Farrell told the School Board that her then 8-year-old son had started out loving school but hated it four years later. She said it was due to the fact that MPS identifies advanced learners but does “nothing for them.”

In an interview this month, Farrell said she and her husband ended up moving their son to Bloomington Public Schools, where there’s a gifted and talented classroom in his school. But she feels like her group has been partnering effectively with the Minneapolis district for the past year, though she said she doesn’t feel enough classroom teachers have advanced-learner training.

Janee Rivard-Johnson, a fifth-grade teacher at Kenny Community School, went through the training a few years ago. She said it helped her understand different ways to cater to both advanced and struggling students and identify students who aren’t typically labeled as gifted.

“Spot[ting] those traits was something the training helped me understand,” she said.

Ramsey said MPS is training one elementary teacher per grade from each school in talent development and advanced-learner education this year. It plans to do the same for middle school teachers next year, she said.

The differentiation position is part of a bigger differentiation plan, said Moore, the interim academics chief. He said he expects to see more engaged students, fewer disciplinary referrals and higher levels of academic growth across all ability levels because of the new position. He also predicted that teachers would feel more supported.

“This is really listening to our families that want rigor and positive classroom experiences,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Farrell’s name.