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How Five District Leaders Reshaped Their Schools' Curricula

By Guest Blogger Sasha Jones

Leaders To Learn From is Education Week's annual report highlighting school and district change-makers nationwide.

The district leaders are singled out every year for their leadership in a wide range of areas, whether it's working to create a more equitable school system to promoting project-based learning. Five of the nine leaders chosen this year made their mark for efforts aimed at improving—and often redefining—the curriculum taught in their schools. 

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In Pocahontas County, W.Va., instructional coach Joanna Burt-Kinderman believes that a solid math foundation leads to civics participation. As a result, she is using a teacher-centered, job-embedded type of professional development to change the way that teachers learn, and in turn, the way they teach.

In math classes, students now work through tough problems together and persist in reasoning them through. The approach has led to a rise in middle and high school math test scores, lifting the districts from around the state average to among the top-performing districts in West Virginia. 

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Emilio Pack, who runs three science and technology charter schools in Los Angeles, is working to put low-income students on the pathway to white-collar jobs. For Pack, the work goes beyond encouraging kids to simply attend college; it means encouraging student to declare majors in STEM fields.

"It's not enough for our kids to go to college, or even to finish college. Too many times we see our students of color defaulting to majors like ethnic studies or psychology," said Pack, whose bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology bought him years of modest paychecks as a school counselor and administrator. "But that's not where the jobs or the money are."

Although Pack's schools have only produced two classes of graduates, his early results are promising. His students are outperforming those at the nearby schools they would otherwise have attended. More than three-quarters of the high school's graduates have enrolled in four-year colleges, and most have declared majors in STEM fields. 

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In rural Alabama, Superintendent Suzanne Lacey has defined success as creating technology-supported opportunities for teachers and students, even where there are not many resources available. And she's taken staff, parents, students, and school-board members from Talledega County to as far as Sacamento, Calif., to see schools with project-based learning models in action.

Lacey's efforts have transformed the schools in the Talladega system. The year after project-based learning was implemented, the graduation rate rose from 64 percent to 82 percent, and disciplinary referrals dropped from 1,800 to 300. Last year, all seniors graduated, with a college-acceptance rate of 96 percent.

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In Colorado, surrounded by ski resorts and old mines, Superintendent Wendy Wyman is taking her students—7 out of 10 of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch—to "new heights" through real-world learning.  

To do so, Wyman is creating relationships with partners both in the community and nationwide. She is also giving her staff the decision on what to incorporate into the curriculum, and what to get rid of. 

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For  Christie-Jo Adams, a fine arts instructional specialist in Richmond public schools, improving student achievement means taking a creative approach, literally. In addition to overseeing more than 50 different courses in visual arts, theater, chorus, orchestra, band, and dance across the Virginia school district, Adams helps teachers incorporate the arts into core academic classes.

To make it work, general education teachers often pair up with arts teachers to present a lesson or introduce a concept. One teacher, for example, teamed up with a math teacher to use dance to help students grasp the tricky concept of rational and irrational numbers.

"I'd like for the teachers in every classroom to be comfortable teaching students outside of their comfort zone," Adams said. "And so that when students have trouble learning, I want them to be able to pull in that music or that math teacher and not be intimidated. ... Our kids need to read and nothing should take precedence over that, absolutely not. I just want to get teachers to understand there's a back door to it, there's a side door to it."

The release of Leaders to Learn From is followed by a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., May 2-3, 2019, where attendees can learn from and network with the leaders themselves.

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