Five districts that are improving curriculum and instruction

Districts of Distinction C&I category finalists: Fayetteville-Manlius, Leyden, Plainfield, Camden County and Alabaster City
By: | Issue: March 2020
February 19, 2020
The Leyden Co.Lab at Leyden High School District 212.

Here are five school systems with noteworthy programs that are improving instruction and curriculum development using effective instructional strategies.

1. Fayetteville-Manlius School District

Program: Inquiry and Innovation: Rethinking the Traditional

Challenge: District administrators had to convince the community about the importance of redefining their classroom teaching strategies to meet the changing needs of students; the district was historically a high-achieving school system.

Initiative: The district shifted to an inquiry-based model that allows personalization but still adheres to core curriculum and standards. A library restructuring allows multiple classes to collaborate on varying projects using different technologies. Expanding library and computer lab schedules gave educators more time to co-teach and plan. In classrooms, students work in small groups and receive more adult support.

Impact: Over the last three years, language arts, math and science scores on the state assessment have increased. Personalization is meeting the needs of more students than traditional learning as academic growth rises through benchmarking. The district now has low discipline referrals and high attendance. “We are able to intervene with students and close gaps differently than we have been able to before,” says Principal Jonna Johnson of Mott Road Elementary School.

Advice: “Looking for ways to support innovation in your teachers is invaluable,” says Johnson. “Give them permission to try something new and different, and be there to discuss and refine things along the way.”

2. Leyden High School District 212

Program: The Leyden Co.Lab: Reimagining the Freshman Year Experience

Challenge: The goal of the district was to create confident problem-solvers through relevant and authentic experiences to accelerate college and career pathways.

Initiative: Co.lab focuses on future-ready skills and dispositions rather than grades and credits for freshman year. Students spend four hours per day with a team of six teachers from different disciplines rather than move from class to class. Each quarter features a different theme that involves students working in groups to improve their local communities and the world.

Impact: Student projects that solve real-world problems have included developing recycling plans for schools and eco-friendly lunch trays. Their work has been featured in magazines and video public service announcements. Students have also formed partnerships with local animal shelters and other community groups. “Students become confident public speakers who advocate for those in need,” says Superintendent Nicholas Polyak.

Advice: “If teachers are going to model creative and collaborative work for the students, they need to be a high-functioning team,” says Polyak.

3. Plainfield Community School Corporation (Ind.)

Program: Bringing Joy to Learning

Challenge: Constant assessments were frustrating teachers and making students see school as a chore. Superintendent Scott Olinger of Plainfield Community School Corporation decided to transform an unused Natatorium into “something that would bring smiles back to the faces of students, teachers and the community,” says Director of Communications Sabrina Kapp.

Initiative: First, an Imagination Lab was created for K-5 students to participate in hands-on “odysseys”—such as coding, horticulture, video/sound or construction—for 90 minutes once per month. To improve instructional strategies further, teachers “extended the magic of the odysseys into the classroom,” says Kapp. All teachers now use The Idea Lab developed by the middle school to create experiences that match content.

Impact: Students work in small groups, test various approaches to find solutions and learn that mistakes do not equal failure. “This success has created opportunities for teachers to think in new ways about lessons, and the result is less paper and more projects, less anxiety and more excitement,” says Kapp.

Advice: Rather than worrying about test scores, leaders need to ask, “Are we preparing students for a future that hasn’t yet been invented?” Students will enter the workforce armed with relevant skills if they are excited about learning, understand that mistakes lead to success and can work in small groups.

4. Camden County Technical School District (N.J.)

Program: Senior Option College Program

Challenge: Many students at this Title 1 district struggled with college access due to economic challenges.

Initiative: High school students receive daily and weekly support from Camden County College representatives and high school counselors to help them navigate up to and through their first year of college. The district has also been improving instruction by allowing high schoolers to attend post-secondary education classes on the college campus.

Impact: Participating high school seniors have been earning a minimum of 24 college credits at no cost to them. Enrollment rose from 13 students in 2013-14 to 94 students this year.

Advice: Create positive relationships with community college administrators and gain support from high school administrators and the board of education. Make sure to include at least one college representative and a counselor from each K-12 school who will connect with students in the program at least once a week.

5. Alabaster City Schools

Program: Our Graduates are College and Career Ready!

Challenge: Administrators at Alabaster City Schools wanted the percentage of college and career-ready students (82%) to match their graduate rate (97%).

Initiative: Curriculum development led to a system where students can earn college- and career-readiness “indicators” by achieving college credit while in high school, receiving a Career Technical Education credential, enlistment in the military, and reaching certain scores on the ACT and ACT WorkKeys. “Knowing they are working towards an indicator is meaningful to students,” says Keri Johnson, coordinator of secondary education. The district provides free ACT and WorkKey tutoring.

Impact: In 2019, 97% of students graduated and were considered college and career ready. The class earned more than $20 million in scholarships and more than 80% enrolled in two- and four-year institutions. Many students have also received college credit while in high school and been hired upon graduation.

Advice: Involve community members in tutoring and identify students who do not have a college and career readiness indicator early so that students have time to earn them.

For more information, visit our Districts of Distinction page.