Teachers in school for new curriculum in Detroit

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Detroit Public Schools Community District teacher Brandy Walker follows along in a text book during  training on the district’s new curriculum at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit on July 17, 2018. Walker, a 5th grade reading teacher at the Foreign Language Immersion Cultural Studies school, became a Master Teacher at DPSCD this year. She plans to teach her regular class a half day this school year and use the other half as a master teacher to support the other teachers.


A new literacy curriculum launching this fall in the Detroit Public Schools Community District will include the creation of classroom libraries and the arrival of thousands of new books for students in grades K-8.

A lack of textbooks, take-home books, novels, readers and other materials has been a common complaint across the district for years, but this September elementary and middle school students in the Detroit district will notice stacks of new books in their classrooms and a different style of teaching using the new reading curriculum, school officials said.

"There will be classroom libraries. Each teacher is getting between 100 and 150 books in their own classroom aligned to curriculum," said April Imperio, deputy executive director of K-12 Literacy for the district. "Classroom libraries are aligned topically, such as animal adaptation, specifically frogs. All kids can access the materials at grade level."

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the new curriculum is one of the most important elements of the district's education reform plan because it's directly tied to the classroom, teaching and learning. The district is also adopting a new math curriculum.

"The core of our reform has to happen in the classroom or you aren’t going to see a difference in (academic) outcomes," Vitti said. "There is nothing more important than providing teachers with the right tools to be successful and a curriculum that is highly aligned to the standards and engaging students."

Vitti dumped the district's former curriculum in June after an audit determined it was not aligned to Michigan's Common Core standards, which outline what students are expected to learn and be able to do at the end of each grade level.

State assessments are based on the standards. The curriculum is the material used to reach the standards and is determined by local school districts.

The new curriculum will require hours of training, so Detroit officials have set up multiple sessions for teachers in July and August. Hundreds of teachers at a time will partake in the sessions with the goal of training up to 2,000 literacy teachers by Aug. 20. Math teachers are also undergoing training this summer.

Robin Howard, who teaches a third-grade reading class at Bates Academy, spent three days training on the new curriculum week at King High School.
“It’s kind of exciting. We had our former curriculum for such a long time, to see something new and something fresh. It’s exciting to get into something different. It’s  completely new and exciting," said Howard.


Imperio said the sessions provide basic training on the curriculum before school starts with continued training during the school year via master teachers embedded in schools and monthly visits from curriculum experts.

"We bring the teachers together and plan a learning experience for them. So over the course of several days we introduce the curriculum, the research behind it, the cornerstones it has been built on," Imperio said.

What makes the literacy curriculum different, Imperio said, is it is a content-based literacy program, so it works to build knowledge through literacy instruction.

"The texts that have been selected are rich. They are complex," Imperio said. "It provides mirrors and windows, an opportunity for students to see themselves reflected in the text they are reading. And to see into other communities and cultures they may not experience on a daily basis."​

Vitti said a homework hotline would be set up for parents to help them understand the changes as well as video postings on new lessons once they have been introduced.

Erin Gutfreund, a senior professional development specialist at EL Education, told the teachers in training that they must acknowledge the need to make a huge paradigm shift as they approach the new curriculum at Detroit Public Schools Community District during a teachers' training session at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit on July 17, 2018.


​​​​​Teachers tackle training

Teachers Robin Howard and Brandy Walker sat in on training on Tuesdayat King High School in Detroit.

In their professional development session, teachers sat in groups of four reading task cards, printed placemats, guides and books to understand the "why" of the new curriculum.

Erin Gutfreund, a senior professional development specialist at EL Education, an educational nonprofit, told the teachers that they must acknowledge the need to make a huge paradigm shift as they approach the new curriculum. 

"This is not what you have been doing…You are tackling a content-driven literacy curriculum. What that means is these compelling topics are going to drive us to explore really interesting topics while practicing our literacy standards with purpose,” Gutfreund said.

Walker, a fifth-grade reading teacher at the Foreign Language Immersion Cultural Studies School, became a master teacher in the district this year.

The plan is for Walker to teach her regular class a half day and use the other half as a master teacher to support the other teachers.

"Students will have their own books to take home, do things at home. We are teaching them responsibility," she said. "That is something that will have to change in our DPSCD culture."

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said she hopes the district allows the master teachers to support other teachers on the new curriculum, instead of using them as substitute teachers amid the district's teacher shortage, which was last reported at 200.

Bailey is also pleased that principals received training on the new curriculum.

"With proper training and proper resources and when administrators are being trained, it makes a big difference," Bailey said. "Principals are the ones evaluating our teachers in the classroom. They need to know what's expected."

Focus on literacy

Amid a staffing shortage. the district is under pressure to increase literacy by third grade or face holding back thousands of students, starting in 2020, under Michigan’s third-grade reading law, which allows districts to retain third-graders who fail the state test in reading.

Only 10 percent of Detroit third-graders are proficient in reading at grade level, according to recent state assessment, compared to 44.1 percent statewide. In third-grade math the number is 12.3 percent proficient, compared to 46.8 percent statewide.

The district is also under pressure to improve student achievement and academic growth in coming years as a partnership school district. The state requires it to reach goals in academic growth or face state intervention at specific schools.

The Detroit Board of Education approved its curriculum programs for $7.6 million this past spring.

The new curriculum, which will impact about 30,000 children across the district, is from EL Education for reading and Eureka Mathematics for math.

For the math curriculum, which cost $1.375 million, the cost covers digital and print resources to implement the curriculum and teacher access to professional development.

For reading, the $5.25 million cost covers the classroom libraries, "decodable" readers which contain phonetic code, a reading plan and materials for formative assessments. 

Vitti said most other districts and schools in the state are also significantly behind with using curriculum that meets the grade level expectations of the standards.

"The difference in impact between our district and others in Michigan is the socio-economic background among children, which is connected to background knowledge and academic skill development," he said. "... We have become the leaders in this work because our children need it the most."

A group of teachers from Detroit Public Schools Community District attends training on the district’s new curriculum at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit on July 17, 2018.


'It's exciting,' teacher says

Robin Howard, a third-grade reading teacher at Bates Academy, spent three days in training last week at King.

“We had our former curriculum for such a long time, to see something new and something fresh, it’s exciting to get into something different," Howard said.

Howard admits it is going to be challenge for her and her students to adjust to the new curriculum.

"But you don’t grow unless sometimes you face those challenges," she said. "I think the children will find it exciting and different."

As for that paradigm shift, Howard agrees.

“It means thinking about how we educate children differently," she said. "It does not have to be that rote. … Now, it’s: ‘Let’s talk about it first. Let’s work through it together. Let’s explore it. Let’s discover it together.’”

Vitti acknowledges there will be growing pains for everyone in adapting to the new curriculum.

"I think students will see the pacing of instruction improve. More instruction time and overall pacing being faster," he said. "They will find materials more engaging and more relevant and content more directed to everyday life.

"I also think they (students) will find it harder and sometimes frustrating and feel an intellectual challenge that has been lacking in our schools."