The School Committee discussed a new English curriculum for middle and high school students on Tuesday night – one that relied on technology to tell diverse stories for readers of all abilities.
After the General Assembly passed the Rhode Island Board of Education Act in 2019, Supt. Alexis Meyer, then director of teaching and learning, led a task force to select a new English and language arts (ELA) curriculum for the school district. A kindergarten through second-grade curriculum rolled out in the 2019-2020 academic year, while grades three through five received their new curriculum this year.
Now, the middle and high schools will implement a new curriculum, with a heavy focus on the literacy software StudySync. According to Asst. Supt. Michael Podraza, the department field-tested the StudySync ELA curriculum for about a year to favorable results, even compared to alternative software from Pearson or College Board.
“We have looked at a series of choices, a series of the right, high-quality curricula and StudySync is the platform that ELA teachers in grades six through 12 unanimously wanted to take a look at,” EGHS English Department Chair Karen Izzo said.
Izzo explained that the three goals that middle and high school English curriculum needs to meet are working with culturally responsive texts, supporting individual students’ interests and meeting Common Core standards.
The first point means that class readings will reflect a wide variety of identities including race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and mental health. Izzo said this can help students from marginalized backgrounds see themselves represented but can help other students “obtain windows into other lives.” She added StudySync has excerpts from many diverse stories available for use, and teachers can search for readings based on these categories. There will also be more nonfiction readings than previous years, which have been more biased towards fiction.
However, this does not mean that more traditional works from the literary canon will necessarily be cut from the curriculum, according to Izzo.
Izzo said StudySync helps English departments meet the second point through the software’s “SyncBlasts,” or an archive of short informational text that varies on the subject matter and reading level. Each blast helps students practice their reading and writing skills, and teachers can quickly respond to assignment completion. She said that this could help engage normally uninterested students.
“What I was able to do because of StudySync is to create a situation where I had 27 students … they were all writing in every different genre, but they were self-selecting their material, their text, or self-selecting their topics,” Izzo said. “And what StudySync allows me to do was to use the blasts in order to individually assign reading to students that would support what it was that they were writing about.”
Finally, Izzo said that through StudySync teachers can track students’ progress on the software and see which Common Core competencies individual students are doing well with, or are struggling with. Lessons have self, peer and teacher assessments embedded in them, and students can be split into groups based on which skills they need to work on.
School Committee Vice-Chair Lori McEwen praised the curriculum’s diversity and flexibility regarding different students’ reading levels. She asked Izzo if the new curriculum covers speaking, listening and grammar skills as well, which Izzo said it did.
Member Tim Munoz asked if the platform allowed for more flexibility regarding which readings teachers choose from. Izzo said that this isn’t always the case.
“There’s an edict and a commitment to grade-level teachers delivering the same text so that students taking the same class do not get wildly different experiences taking the same course,” Izzo said. “Having said that, it is possible, for instance, you could have two seventh grades, where one seventh grade has got students who are for whatever reason wild about Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet, and another teacher thinks ‘You know this class is really struggling, I think I should give them a different Shakespeare play or different excerpts from Shakespeare.’ And if the standards are the same, and generally the text is the same, the platform allows flexibility that way.”
District coronavirus update
During the meeting, Superintendent Alexis Meyer reviewed COVID-19 cases in the district. According to Meyer, there have been 21 new positive cases among students districtwide since the last School Committee meeting Jan. 19, as well as five new cases among staff.
Since the start of the academic year, the district has seen 93 students and 27 staff members test positive for COVID. The most positive cases came from East Greenwich High School, where 37 students and 9 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since the fall. At Archie R. Cole Middle School, 26 students have tested positive along with 6 staff members. The elementary schools break down as follows: Frenchtown Elementary School – 5 students and 1 staff member; Eldredge Elementary School – 10 students and 1 staff member; Meadowbrook Elementary School – 7 students and 2 staff members; and Hanaford Elementary School; 8 students and 4 staff members.
Meyer also provided an update on the BinaxNOW asymptomatic testing of staff and students. 1,108 asymptomatic students have been tested through the program, with 3 testing positive: one each at Frenchtown, Cole, and EGHS. Of the 260 staff tested in the program, only one tested positive. The employee is a district-level employee and not employed at a specific school.
Regarding graduation, Meyer said she and other school departments are working with Rhode Island Department of Health to determine what will be possible in the spring, but nothing concrete has been decided yet.
“What it seems to be at this point is clearly an outdoor setting may be what is going to be recommended, although some districts have looked at the Ryan Center to see if there was a possible enough spacing in there and we could hold an indoor graduation,” Meyer said. “All of that is yet to be determined until we get guidance from the Rhode Island Department of Health of what we can do but planning is taking place, and we look forward to being able to have end-of-the-year celebrations.”
Kindergarten registration for the 2021-2022 academic year will occur by appointment at Cole Middle School on Feb. 8 and Feb. 22. Parents can schedule an appointment on the East Greenwich School Department’s website HERE.
Extend post-employment benefits for non-union staff or not?
During Tuesday’s executive session, the committee voted unanimously to extend retirement benefits worth $6,500 to Christine DiMeglia, the retiring assistant to the superintendent and the clerk to the School Committee. The meeting was DiMeglio’s last, with Amy Healy moving into the position.
However, later in the meeting, the committee voted against a policy change to extend two years’ post-employment health care benefits to non-union employees who are not administrators in which the district would assume 80 percent of the premium. Such a policy change would affect four employees, including the (new) administrative assistant to the superintendent and special ed director, the accountant, and the special ed assistant.
Committee chair Lori McEwen sponsored the motion against the proposal, explaining that the committee needed more time to review individual contracts before implementing this change on all of them.
“[Why] I’m urging my motion now to deny these at this point is that there’s still work to be done by the personnel committee to look at all of these contracts. We took the specific requester’s request up and denied that, and the full committee is aware of that. So I think to extend at this point would not be prudent knowing that we have continued work to do to look at all of those contracts.”
The School Committee holds a special meeting Friday, Feb. 5, with state legislators at 5 p.m. Find the agenda and Zoom link here: Special SC mtg. agenda 2/5/21.