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Paynesville Press - January 28, 2004

District ponders curriculum changes

By Michael Jacobson

Curriculum changes are looming in the Paynesville Area School District, in order to meet the new state standards. The need to meet the standards, and to prepare students to take the standardized testing, could result in a number of course changes as the new standards come into effect over the next four years.

The current eighth grade class will be the first from the Paynesville Area School System to graduate under the new standards, so revised curriculum will need to be in place as these students make their way through high school.

Perhaps the language arts department (English) is the furthest along in looking at changing its curriculum to meet the changes. This is because the new standards for language arts were released last year and because it is their turn on the district's six-year purchasing cycle - along with special education - meaning the department would normally be reviewing its curriculum anyway in preparation of buying new materials.

Currently, high school students are required to take four years of English classes to graduate from Paynesville Area High School. English I and English II are required courses, and most students take these in ninth and tenth grade.

Juniors and seniors now must take four semester courses but have choices in what classes they take. Current English electives are language and composition, narrative and descriptive writing, American literature, world literature, elective speech, and journalism. (Select students, one section, take Honors English, a year-long course.)

The problem facing the English department is that the new state standards require six areas not addressed, or not covered completely, by English I and II: composition, world literature, British literature, American literature, speech, and media literacy.

The high school English teachers have found that it is difficult to fit these requirements into semester courses for juniors and seniors. So they have proposed that the school district divide these topics and integrate them into two year-long English courses for juniors and seniors, to be called English III and English IV, teacher Amy Flanders told the district's curriculum advisory committee last week.

These two new courses, if the changes are approved, would be required for graduation, one to be taken as a junior and the other as a senior.

An advantage in dividing the English courses this way is that it would be easier to schedule. Since all students would need to take both English III and English IV - unless they take Honors English - there would be no need to schedule individual courses to meet all the requirements.

Having standard courses would eliminate the electives that juniors and seniors now enjoy, reducing student choice, which is a disadvantage. But in order to incorporate all the new standards into two years of classes, students would likely have less choice when it comes to English requirements anyway.

(In the elementary school, since the teachers are finding their math materials outdated, they are skipping purchasing for language arts this year and will instead purchase a new math series for grades K-5.)

It is also the special education department's turn to purchase materials this year, and they too have to take into account the required standards in purchasing material, said principal on special assignment Deb Gillman, who acts as the district's curriculum coordinator. The special education department has to worry about meeting the new state standards because under No Child Left Behind, it will not be as easy to exempt special education students from state testing.

No Child Left Behind requires a 95 percent participation rate and allows only one percent of special education students to be exempted, said Gillman. This means that the special education department also needs to prepare its students as well as possible for state testing.

Gillman praised the dedicated staff in the school district for their professional approach to changing the curriculum to meet the new state standards. "Our concern is that (the state standards) are getting prescriptive, and student choice is getting less and less," said Gillman. "But we're passionate about education kids. There's no question that we're going to do it. It's just how do we do it."

Social science also faces huge changes due to the new state standards. In the high school, the school district will need to condense their current two-year American history sequence into a one-year class, they need to develop a year-long geography class by the 2005-06 school year, when the current eighth graders become tenth graders, and they need to develop a semester class in world history.

The social science department has two main problems in accomplishing this, according to Gillman. First, they just purchased new materials two years ago, so their turn on the six-year district purchasing cycle won't come again for another four years. That's too late, since the curriculum changes need to be made before then.

A solution to this problem may be to suspend the purchasing cycle for one year in order to buy all the new materials required for the switch to the new standards, but this means other necessary purchases and upgrades will have to wait a year extra, said Gillman.

The other problem facing the social science department is that the new standards are not done and figure to be a source of considerable debate in this year's legislative session. Until the standards are known, it is impossible to review materials to find the ones that best cover them, said Gillman.

(The social science sequence in the middle school may also change due to the new state standards, with American history and world history now required at that level, while geography and civics are not.)

Math and science also are affected by the new standards, with three years of math required in high school for this year's eighth graders and three years of science. (This is up from two years of math and two and a half years of science that is required of the current high schoolers.)

But math and science, on a national level, said Gillman, are ahead of language arts and social science because educators in those subject areas agreed long ago on the best teaching series. (This agreement is why most schools teach math in the sequence of algebra, then geometry, and then trigonometry.)

Since the math curriculum already meets the new standards fairly well, that department is spending more time researching a college-credit class to add. (Since one section of eighth graders is taking algebra now, they will finish the current math sequence offered in the high school a year earlier, and thus would have the time to take an extra college-credit math class.)

Whether expanding the current curriculum or changing it to meet the new requirements, the changes must be in place over the next four years, as the current eighth graders advance towards graduation in 2008.

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