Tensions ran high between the Stillwater Area School Board and the district’s secondary literacy teachers during the Nov. 14 board meeting.

After hearing a final report by the secondary curriculum review committee — a group of teachers and administration who recommend a once-per-decade refresh of the district’s reading curriculum — the board voted 3-3 and rejected the purchase of the proposed curriculum and to fund the professional development to implement the change.

Rachel Larson, director of learning and student engagement, presented the proposed curriculum changes during the board Oct. 10 meeting. The Nov. 14 presentation answered questions that the board had from the previous meeting, and to allow teachers to give testimony of serving on the committee, and about beta testing the new curriculum.

The refresh of curriculum follows about a year of research and meetings of teachers from both of the district’s middle schools and the high school. While the group looked and many options, Larson said, the group agreed to a different way of teaching reading than the district had done in the past.

Instead of the entire class reading one novel together and learning reading comprehension together, the new curriculum called for a short workshop time at the beginning of class to discuss a reading skill. After the workshop is over, students read self-selected or teacher-guided books and apply the skills. Teacher then meet one-on-one or in a group to discuss and see if the student is applying the skills to the book they are reading.

Many teacher praised the flexibility to teach the same skills to readers, but differentiate the level of the book to fit a student’s need.

The new curriculum still follows the same state-required standards as the previous curriculum, Larson said.

Tracy Cox, an eighth grade teacher at Stillwater Middle School, told the board that she was using the new curriculum in her classroom.

“This year, I have seen reading more in my students than I have ever had in any classroom. My books are flying off the shelves and students are reading faster than I can get them back on the shelves,” Cox said. “We had a reading celebration after just one month of school. My students have read 385 books and over 121,000 pages, and yes, we kept track.”

Cox told the board that the new curriculum give students time in the classroom to practice reading and more time for teachers to get to know their students’ reading needs.

“In 2016, I completed my doctorate in education, and focused my dissertation on reading at the secondary level. I did extensive research on reading and the latest research surrounding it. Reading is extremely complex. There isn’t and will never be will never be a one size fits all curriculum that will fulfill every student’s need,” Cox said. “However, what I do know and what research tells us is that without practice, readers don’t become better readers. There is a direct correlation between the amount of time a student spends reading and their reading success, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.”

New curriculum is expensive, Larson admitted. To fully-fund the entire curriculum package with professional development for teachers would be over $500,000. Working with a reduced budget for implementation, Larson said they were asking for $135,000 for curriculum and $25,820 for professional development. Because administration works on a three-year budgeting cycle and secondary literacy curriculum was scheduled for this year for renewal, the administration already included the reduced amount in the approved budget for the 2020 fiscal year. Due to the large size of the cost, the administration needed to bring the purchase to the board for approval to spend the budgeted funds.

Board member Liz Weisberg asked Larson about the going forward with spending funding on secondary literacy curriculum when the board previous approved a similarly-reduced amount of funds for the elementary schools, referencing the district’s Read Well by Third Grade plan.

“Budget cuts to curriculum and professional development will have an impact on the scope and timing,” Weisberg said. “So my question is, what would it take to be able to finish that and that at the elementary level? ... I just bring it up because to me, it makes sense to put our money to finish the one we started first before we put more money in the next system.”

Board member Sarah Stivland had concerns if the change was the right direction to go for the district.

“I love all the enthusiasm and I appreciate everything you do for our students every day. ... This is sounds like a pretty big change from how we’ve been doing things in the past,” Stivland said. “I voted against the this literacy program for the elementary school because I don’t believe it’s the right thing for us to do. And it’s very expensive. And I still have the same concerns that I had before. And I don’t know if this is the right way for us to go secondary as well.”

Board members also shared that they had received some concern from parents advocating for students with dyslexia with concerns about the change.

As the board discussion leaned toward a vote to not approve the proposed curriculum change, many of the teachers and staff at the meeting became agitated.

“I’m trying not to be utterly offended that we are not listening to our staff and these people that have spent so much time on this curriculum,” said board member Jennifer Pelletier. “I don’t understand why we are not listening to the people that we hire to make these tough decisions for us. We’re not teachers. We’re not administrators. We’re not academics.”

“It’s unfortunately it’s become a board against teachers and that’s not what it is,” said board member Shelley Pearson. “And of course, you’re the experts. We also don’t want to be a rubber stamp.”

The board voted 3-3 to reject the proposed curriculum with board chair Mike Ptacek, Pelletier and Pearson in favor of the proposal and Weisberg, Stivland and board member Tina Riehle in opposition of the proposal. Board member Mark Burns was absent.

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