School District 65 may offer two new courses at the K-5 grade levels and one new one for sixth graders beginning next year, said Stacy Beardsley, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction, in a presentation to the Board on April 10. Board members expressed some concerns.
As part of the contract entered into with the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union) in December, District 65 agreed to give teachers at the K-5 grade levels one extra planning period each week, so they will now have five, rather than four, planning periods each week. The change created the need to develop a new 40-minute course offering for students.
Ms. Beardsley said administrators were proposing two new courses for K-5th graders: Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Computational Science.
In addition, the new teachers’ contract provides that middle school teachers would not be required to lead a 47-minute advisory class that meets every day for sixth graders. As a result, administrators are planning to re-design and create a class for that period.
In recommending the courses, Ms. Beardsley said administrators identified courses that supported areas of identified need in the District’s strategic plan and that advanced equity. Administrators also gathered input from the Curriculum Advisory Committee (“CAC”).
K-5: SEL and Computational Science
Administrators recommend that the District provide two new courses for K-5th grade students: SEL/Equity and Computational Science. Students would have the classes one day a week, with equal exposure to each course during kindergarten through fifth grade.
The SEL/Equity course is intended “to deepen student social emotional skills that lead to stronger adult and student relationships, increased self-regulation, and a greater sense of belonging and success at school,” says Ms. Beardsley in a memo presented to the Board. “The class will emphasize relationship building as developed through a varied model of SEL programming and equity work.”
The plan is not to replace SEL programming led by the classroom teacher, but to extend and strengthen it, she said.
Ms. Beardsley cited research that students who participated in SEL programs showed an 11-percentile point gain in academic achievement, and that SEL competencies “are critically important for the long-term success of all students in today’s economy.”
The goal of the Computational Science course “is to expose all students to the concepts of computational thinking and algorithmic processes. In the class, students will have the opportunity to apply computer science concepts to designing and building (coding) solutions to problems using technology. Students will be able to experience being active creators of technology and not just passive users as they currently do,” says Mr. Beardsley’s memo.
Ms. Beardsey cited research showing that women, African Americans, and Hispanics are vastly underrepresented in the computer science workforce, a job sector expected to continue growing in the future. She also said that people will need computational sciences skills in many future careers, and that studying computational science develops critical thinking skills.
Ms. Beardsley said 57% of the CAC voters supported the SEL/Equity course, with 21% opposing it; and 50% of the CAC voters supported the introduction to computational science course, with 28% not supporting it.
Sixth-Grade: Advisory 2.0
Ms. Beardsley said, “Middle School principals have identified social emotional skills and executive functioning skills as the most important skills that we need to develop in incoming sixth-graders.” The proposed advisory course seeks to meet this need, and in addition, “seeks to provide high quality STEM experiences to all students that could be a foundation for on-going interest and exploration.”
Sixth-graders would take the new 47-minute course every day.
For the first five or six weeks, the course would be an “orientation,” including how to use the library and technology resources, provide exposure to certain mandatory training, contain initial executive-functioning lessons around time management, and inform students how to navigate the social jump into middle school.
After the orientation, students would focus on three “core” subjects that would be taught on a rotating basis during the school year:
• FUSE, an engineering STEM curriculum developed by Northwestern University and currently being used in all three middle schools,
• Executive Functioning, which would include lessons around learning styles, memory improvement techniques, and goal setting, followed by the Rush Neuroscience center curriculum currently being piloted at Haven,
• SEL, which would include sharing circles, restorative justice, push-in social work workshops, service learning and team building.
Ms. Beardsey said principals would also be able to offer language exposure, which would include lessons to help students understand the cultures of the world and help students select the language they would like to study for the rest of middle school.
Sixty percent of the CAC voters supported the course, and 20% did not support it.
The cost of each program is estimated at $480,000, or a total of $960,000. This was built into the District’s recent financial projections.
Board members held a lengthy discussion about the proposed courses, and many posed questions and raised concerns.
Tracy Quattrocki said there seemed to be some “push-back” from members of CAC, and asked why. Ms. Beardsley said some of the push-back related to the staffing models and logistics.
Ms. Quattrocki said a five or six week orientation session for the sixth graders seemed long, and she said that teaching about language selection might be “content-light.” She suggested that the SEL instruction in the K-5 grade levels might be combined with activities or content, which might make the classes more engaging.
Joyce Bartz, Assistant Superintendent of Special Services, said the sixth-grade orientation would include instruction on some required topics, including anti-bullying and suicide prevention, and added that SEL might be taught in the context of peace circles or service-learning projects. Superintendent Paul Goren said research shows that SEL instruction works well when it is embedded in the curriculum, but also when it is taught separately.
Suni Kartha asked if any thought was given to using the open period to bring foreign language back to sixth grade. Assistant Superintendent of Schools John Price said offering foreign language in seventh and eighth graders fits well with the ETHS program. With two years of foreign language at District 65, students can advance to year two of the language at ETHS, he said.
Ms. Kartha also said there were a lot of little things included in the new courses, and suggested it might be better to focus in-depth on one thing.
Ms. Quattrocki said in assessing the programs, it would be important to capture student reactions to the courses, and assess if they are bored or if they are engaged. “This is new territory,” she said, “We’re trying to do something that’s not strictly academics.”
Anya Tanyavutti urged administrators to gather more input and provide more feedback to stakeholders during the process.
Paula Zelinski, President of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union), said teachers had a number of concerns, including that sixth graders would be introduced to three additional teachers in a transitional year with the course rotations, foreign language teachers were not consulted, and the technology offering would increase the demand for laptops.
Sergio Hernandez said he liked the way the proposed courses were explained, and said, “It’s very exciting we’re going to be engaging different parts of a child’s brain.”
It is anticipated that Board members will be asked to reach a decision on the course offerings at their April 24 meeting.