DeKalb Schools: New curriculum aims to teach students at all speeds

Kindergarten teacher Natalya Almond works with her students in front of a Promethean board at Narvie Harris Elementary School Thursday, November 2, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Kindergarten teacher Natalya Almond works with her students in front of a Promethean board at Narvie Harris Elementary School Thursday, November 2, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

In a quiet kindergarten classroom at Decatur’s Narvie J. Harris Elementary School one day recently, Kimyatta Walker’s students were split into three groups, using worksheets, computers and index cards for a lesson on letter sounds.

Next door, Natalya Almond’s students crowded around a white board she was writing on, shouting the sound the ‘g’ makes in “bug.”

"Guh!" they said as she pointed.

The lessons could not be more different. But the result, hopefully, would be the same.

“You’ve still got to teach the same lesson,” said Walker, in her fourth year teaching at Narvie Harris. “You’re working through engaging scenarios and you’re able to justify (the lesson) and explain it to your students. As a teacher, you do everything you can to make it interesting for them.

“This gives it a little more personality.”

The district's new curriculum, implemented during the 2017-2018 school year for the first time, has been an immediate hit with many instructors. They say it is producing better engagement from students during classroom lessons. Because teachers were involved in its development, they feel invested in its success.

District officials first presented the new curriculum plan at a DeKalb Board of Education meeting in March, saying it would establish an intense instructional road map while providing opportunities to adjust during individual units to keep a pace that all children could follow.

The school year is broken down into two-week intervals for lessons to be carried out. For most of the days, there are lessons and projects. At the end of the two-week period, teachers have a chance to go back into the lesson for review and to see what students took away in the process. After the two weeks is over, teachers give feedback about the lesson for future use and share takeaways that could enhance the upcoming lesson plans as well.

The changes have multiple benefits. The curriculum also helps the district lessen the chances that transient students, who transfer to another school during the school year, don’t find themselves out of the loop at their new school.

“We have a large transient population,” said Stacy Stepney, the district’s executive director for K-12 core content and electives. “If you walk into any school across the district, the students are supposed to be learning the same thing.”

Some curriculum changes were implemented last year, Superintendent Steve Green said, including assessments to gauge a student's knowledge as the year progresses. Thursday, the Georgia Department of Education announced results of its annual report card for progress, the College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI), where the district scored 69.9 on a 110-point scale, up from 66.6 last year. Green praised resources added to individualize student learning, including instructional support coaches and NWEA/MAP assessments, done with students and functioning as guides for where students are as the year progresses.

“For the first time, we had the deep data we needed to execute a very intensive and strategic effort,” Green said.

Almond said she likes the collaborative environment produced from working with other teachers in her school and across the district.

“In the past, the curriculum was more teacher-centered,” she said. “This gives (the students) more strength and independence. It makes them more confident.”

Walker, who participated in writing the curriculum, said working with other teachers and consultants from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which produces a large number of textbooks, gave her a chance to see how different kindergarten students were learning and where they were beginning in their learning process across the district. It forced her to break down lessons further, giving herself a better understanding of why she was teaching what she was teaching.

Lisa Minor, a third-grade teacher at Narvie Harris who also took part in the curriculum writing process, agreed. “It helped me to understand the standards we teach and why we teach them,” she said.

Minor and other third-grade teachers were going through their upcoming lesson plans, talking through what they learned and tweaking the basic structure through group feedback while a content coach looked on. The coach suggested making the students submit their classroom presentations as a report for an upcoming lesson, which would fulfill a state standard.

“It was a lot of long days and weekends,” Minor said about building the curriculum. “And it’s not perfect, but … we know better what the needs are.”

DeKalb’s curriculum management process

The DeKalb County School District is in the second year of a three-year process for establishing and tweaking its new curriculum.

Phase I — Analysis (Year I): Research and review standards alignment, resources and best practices. Analyze data and identify strategies to improve.

Phase II — Development (Year I): Review, revise and/or write curriculum for select content areas. Adoption by the Board of Education.

Phase III — Implementation (Year II): Ongoing professional development.

Phase IV — Evaluation (Year II): Feedback from teachers, parents/guardians and students. Review and revise curriculum based on feedback and data analysis.

Phase V — Implementation (Year III): Ongoing professional development (focus on revised curriculum units).