Common Core hits Madison County: How one district is making room for big reforms

When the students at Ridgeland High School returned to school in August, they were greeted with a host of unexpected changes: The school day was six minutes longer. All classes, including art and choir, had required reading assignments. And each student had to attend a new, daily class period to receive extra help with course work.

Many of the Ridgeland High students had little idea the changes were driven by the Common Core, a set of new education standards Mississippi and most other states adopted in 2010. But their teachers knew all too well.

Sandra Jarrett, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Madison Middle School, teaches her students how to diagram a sentence. Jarrett stopped teaching the concept about six years ago, but says the new standards have made it necessary to focus more on skills that involve writing and critical thinking. (Photo: Jackie Mader)
Sandra Jarrett, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Madison Middle School, teaches her students how to diagram a sentence. Jarrett stopped teaching the concept about six years ago, but says the new standards have made it necessary to focus more on skills that involve writing and critical thinking. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

In Mississippi, state officials have largely left it up to individual districts to overhaul their approach to instruction to meet the new standards. That means teachers in Madison County, which serves more than 12,000 students across the suburbs just north of Jackson, have spent dozens of hours rethinking every aspect of their teaching. And principals, too, have had to make significant changes, including lengthening the school day to give teachers — and students — more time to grapple with the new standards.

The Common Core math and English language arts standards lay out what skills students should master at different grade levels; they also aim to encourage more analysis and critical thinking across subject areas. In 2015, Mississippi students will start taking computer-based tests aligned with the standards.

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Madison superintendent Ronnie McGehee says that the district has encouraged its 20 schools to make changes based on their individual needs. “Schools have autonomy underneath the big umbrella,” McGehee said. Although Madison is one of the highest achieving districts in the state, it is also one of the largest and more diverse. About half of the district’s schools received an A or B rating this year on the state’s A to F scale, while the other half received a C or D rating. Thirty-five percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The differences between schools have made a “one size fits all” approach all but impossible, McGehee said. He added that district officials see their role as trying to support initiatives at individual schools and encourage collaboration between teachers.

Dozens of Madison County teachers interviewed said they are relying on each other for their most meaningful teacher training. “I would not be able to do this by myself, none of us would,” said Suzanne Williams, a first-grade teacher at Madison Crossing Elementary in Canton. “I can’t imagine having to teach somewhere where you don’t have a team.”

A learning curve

On a recent morning at Madison Crossing Elementary, about 25 miles outside of Jackson, the school’s five first-grade teachers gathered around a table for a meeting on how to grade student writing.

Suzanne Williams and Laura Morris, first-grade teachers at Madison Crossing Elementary, discuss a piece of student writing. The teachers say collaboration has been necessary to ease the transition to new standards. (Photo: Jackie Mader)
Suzanne Williams and Laura Morris, first-grade teachers at Madison Crossing Elementary, discuss a piece of student writing. The teachers say collaboration has been necessary to ease the transition to new standards. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

Their students had reached the end of a unit on non-fiction writing, which is a cornerstone of Common Core, and each had brought examples of student work to learn how the writing would be scored based on a new set of criteria aligned with Common Core. Now, the students will be graded on their incorporation of details to support a topic and effective use of transition words, such as “also.” Under the old standards, the first-grade teachers graded students largely on punctuation and grammar.

The shift has presented a huge learning curve for the teachers as well as the students. “We’re not teaching five facts of caterpillars and having them copy them down into a journal like we used to,” said Martha D’Amico, the principal at Madison Crossing. Under Common Core, first-graders will have to research topics, write detailed opinion or explanatory responses and brainstorm more with their classmates.

And for the first time, the teachers are introducing their young students to more sophisticated writing techniques, like “twin sentences,” which refers to two consecutive sentences where the second elaborates on a fact in the first. (One teacher gave this example from a student’s writing: Caterpillars eat leaves. Leaves are on plants.)

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The teachers have turned to each other to figure out how to incorporate the new standards into their teaching. For instance, at Mannsdale Elementary in Madison, two third grade teachers spent the summer writing a new English language arts and math curriculum aligned with the Common Core that all of the third-grade teachers at the school can use this year.

Across the district, all teachers participate in small groups called professional learning communities, based on grade levels. At Madison Crossing, D’Amico meets with each professional learning community once a week, but most groups meet on their own every day. (While teachers said the groups have become more necessary since Common Core, participating in a learning community is also a requirement of the state’s new teacher evaluation system, which will most likely roll out in 2016.)

The teachers have made subtle changes to their schedules to make it easier to collaborate. For instance, all the members of the first-grade team moved to the same hallway this year so they could confer with each other more easily, including during hallway monitoring duty. Many teachers say they now stay several hours past the end of the school day and text each at home during the evening as they realign their lesson plans to meet the new standards.

“We weren’t taught these things in school,” said first-grade teacher Brande Winstead. “It’s hard to teach something that you haven’t been taught. We take it home every night and we dig into it so we will learn how to teach it.”

The need for flexibility

While teachers and principals have taken the lead in the transition to Common Core, state officials have sponsored dozens of in-person training sessions and webinars, which address specific topics like kindergarten writing. The Mississippi Department of Education also created a page on iTunes where teachers can access recordings of meetings.

The principal of Madison Crossing, Martha D’Amico, explains how to grade student writing, while teacher Lela Hester looks on. (Photo: Jackie Mader)
The principal of Madison Crossing, Martha D’Amico, explains how to grade student writing, while teacher Lela Hester looks on. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

But with a Common Core training team of only two people, the state is limited in its ability to help. Marla Davis, director of mathematics for the Mississippi Department of Education, says the team is also cautious of overstepping its bounds. “Local districts know the needs of their students and the needs of their teachers much more than we could,” Davis said. While the state will continue to offer training sessions, Davis said she does not foresee the state providing sample lesson plans, curriculum or classroom materials, which other states like Colorado and New York have done. “We want to leave the autonomy there at local districts. That will allow them a lot more flexibility.”

Amidst the administrators in Madison County, there is a hunger for that flexibility. At a recent professional development session for principals, Ridgeland High School principal Sharon Summers and assistant principal Tim Dowdy presented their school’s changes to a group of two-dozen colleagues. The other principals were particularly intrigued by the scheduling adjustments that give teachers more time to help struggling students and each other.

Summers hopes that the new schedule will ease the transition to Common Core. By next year, all math and English teachers at Ridgeland will begin to teach based on the new standards, which are considered more rigorous than the state’s previous standards. In the meantime, she is hopeful that teachers will now have more time simply to talk to one another. “That’s the one thing about Common Core,” Summers said. “It’s not something you do in isolation. It has to be a collaborative effort.”

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