Board of Education members Bruce Kimmel, Julie Corbett, Erik Anderson, and Barbara Meyer-Mitchell comprise the Board’s Curriculum and Instruction Committee.
Educators have long-faced a challenging dilemma: How to implement a rigorous and comprehensive curriculum while simultaneously addressing the social and emotional needs of all students. This is no easy task, especially when teachers work without a framework designed to integrate social and emotional goals into the standard curriculum.
Tracey Elementary School has adopted a program called Character Education that incorporates core values into academic instruction. The BOE’s Curriculum and Instruction Committee, in December, met with several staff members, including Theresa Rangel, the principal, and parents from the school to discuss its character curriculum.
The program requires the school to provide a “meaningful and challenging academic curriculum that respects all learners, develops their character, and helps them succeed.” What we wanted to know was whether this was just another “add-on” with only a tenuous connection to the school’s academic curriculum, or whether it was truly integrated into academic endeavors.
In one of the handouts from the school, entitled “What’s Different About Tracey,” the first bullet point notes there is “explicit instruction” related to five personality elements: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. The committee wanted information on how these elements were incorporated into academic instruction.
We were presented with an actual lesson plan for a fourth grade literacy lesson at Tracey. The assignment covered typical grade-appropriate skills, such as drawing inferences from a text, identifying a theme from a story, or delineating character traits. But it also required students to consider concepts such as empathy, self-awareness and moral development.
We were also presented an outline of the overall curriculum, including math and science, that described how the five personality elements mentioned above are integrated into standard instruction. For instance, under science/engineering, students become aware of the importance of working collaboratively or abruptly changing course to achieve a goal. And with math, the need for perseverance and to work from multiple perspectives were noted.
According to staff and parents, the change in the school’s culture since adoption of the curriculum has been considerable; they said you can almost feel it as you move through the building. We asked about suspension rates and disciplinary issues, and we were surprised to learn they have had no suspensions this year, and that they turn garden-variety discipline problems into learning experiences. The school uses a system akin to community service for those students who run afoul of the rules.
One of the intriguing aspects of our discussion was the description of the administration’s work with teachers to achieve schoolwide buy-in for the program, especially in relation to discipline. Many of the teachers, for most of their careers, had used negative consequences to discipline students. The change to the above-mentioned system has not been easy. So far, the new system seems to be working.
Every student in the school has what might be called a “personal guidance counselor” who they interact with each week. Every adult working in the school is part of this program, which is designed to identify problems early on and take steps to solve them.
While we were impressed with the character program, we still had concerns about academic progress as measured by standardized tests. According to the most recent state data, Tracey went from an overall state accountability score of 68.5 in 2015-16 to a score of 72.7 in 2016-17. The school also had higher scores in 2016-17 for high needs students in math, science and English Language Arts. But for all students combined, the scores went down slightly in these areas compared to the previous year.
The Tracey principal, Theresa Rangel, explained to committee members that many of the students are meeting their academic growth goals, but the school needs to move more students to grade level and above in their core subjects. She was optimistic that sustained implementation of the character curriculum will help the school achieve its academic goals.
Committee members believe Tracey’s character curriculum can serve as a best practice model in social and emotional learning for other district schools. As the year progresses, we will continue to monitor Tracey. What they are trying to do is not easy, but is truly essential for long-term student growth, academic and otherwise.