It is not easy to transform a school system that has been struggling for a long time.
And it’s not easy to maintain a commitment to teaching the dark parts of our history to school children.
In New Bedford, we need to do both, and the challenge has become apparent in recent weeks after The Light was approached by people concerned that the New Bedford school department has moved away from the blocks this year. long-taught courses on the Holocaust and civil rights.
The truth is, the school system isn’t straying away from these blocks of learning, but it did abruptly embark on a new curriculum in October that has made it more difficult, if not impossible, for some 8th grade teachers to work with. . Specifically, the banned materials centered on a play based on the Diary of Anne Frank and the materials used in connection with Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from Birmingham Jail.
“It wasn’t the best way to implement it,” acknowledged Assistant Superintendent Karen Treadup of the new program, which is called CommonLit 360 and was unveiled after the start of the school year. Treadup and two other school administrators met with The Light last week about the complaints. “We felt that the needs of – what do we have 3,000 middle school students? — were important. They haven’t had another year,” Treadup said.
Treadup and the other two administrators – Director of Studies Brian Turner and Laura Garcia, the English Language Arts Officer for Middle and Elementary Schools, cited New Bedford College’s MCAS scores lagging behind, as well as the effects of two full school years turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, as reasons they felt they couldn’t wait to change the curriculum. They acknowledged that they did not get buy-in from some professors before moving on to the new approach. Nor was the change the result of insistence by Mayor Jon Mitchell or the New Bedford school board, Treadup said.
“If you look at our college scores and performance, they’re in the first, second percentile across the state,” Treadup said. “And we didn’t think we could waste time, another year not teaching grade-level materials and texts. So that was the fastest way for us to get everyone involved.
Garcia explained that there are a wealth of scientific studies over the past 30 years that show that students learn literacy through the acquisition of knowledge through exposure to relevant vocabulary and texts.
The problem with some of the Holocaust and civil rights texts that New Bedford teachers used for topics like Anne Frank’s diary and the MLK letter was that they were at the 3rd grade level, rather than in grade 8, where they were taught. , says Garcia.
“In order to develop literacy, we need to have grade level texts. We need to provide students with complex texts that they can analyze and examine,” she said.
The school administration is currently in the process of identifying more appropriate texts to teach subjects dealing with the treatment of minorities, which it recognizes are important areas for school children to learn.
Although the New Bedford school system has long offered courses on the Holocaust and the civil rights movement, it is at no time an absolute requirement in the K-12 system. Nor lessons on the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, New Bedford abolitionist Paul Cuffe, or the history of the Wampanoag indigenous population. A great deal of latitude is left to individual teachers.
Some outreach on teaching minority issues is done through events such as the annual Martin Luther King Essay Contest and Yom HaShoah, Jewish Federation of Greater New Bedford Holocaust Remembrance Day , which is held annually in April. The federation also sponsors the Trunk of Tolerance project which provides educational materials about the Holocaust to educators and others who may need them.
Accountability Reports for Roosevelt, Keith and Normandin Middle Schools
A teacher who used the Frank and MLK materials in question said he was baffled that administrators suddenly discovered that texts that had been used for 40 years were now inappropriate. The teacher, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals from administrators, said that to teach literacy successfully, you need to teach things children want to read. The new CommonLit curriculum material was deadly boring and garnered little interest from students, the teacher said.
The challenge in New Bedford, according to the teacher, is that out of 70 8th graders in their classes, only a few are actually at 8th grade reading level. The majority are at 5th grade level and about 20% are at 2nd grade level.
“In my experience, the number 1 telltale for kids reading at the grade level is if they read outside of school,” said the teacher, who has been teaching in the city for more than two decades. So this teacher’s goal is simply to get New Bedford students to read anything, period.
There seems to be a disconnect between New Bedford 8th graders doing so poorly on MCAS and 10th graders having to pass MCAS to graduate. New Bedford’s graduation rates have increased significantly over the past decade, and the school system announced the improvements with great fanfare.
Treadup said it expects the graduation rate improvements to hold and said the system is reviewing the entire program. Currently, the system is running pilot programs that will lead to the implementation of another program, instead of CommonLit, next year. This program searches for grade-level texts on topics such as the Holocaust and civil rights.
“Right now we’re focused on college,” Treadup said. “We also introduced a new math program, K-8. So we take what is outdated, we cannot keep the same course for 10, 15, 20 years. You need to update it.
Leaders of Greater New Bedford’s Jewish and African-American communities have expressed concern that New Bedford administrators will focus on curriculum changes rather than protecting lessons about important minority history, even temporarily.
“You can’t just not teach these two subjects as you work your way up to more satisfying levels of texts,” said Amir Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Bedford. Some subjects cannot be left to teachers’ choice.
LaSella Hall, president of the NAACP New Bedford, said the NAACP has been lobbying the city for some time for a curriculum that includes “robust” studies of African American and Indigenous subjects. He said challenges with sensitivity to minority opinions relate to the fact that while 64% of New Bedford public school students are minorities, about 80% of school staff are white.
The NAACP has advocated for an affirmative action plan to change hiring practices, he said.
Regarding the new curriculum, Hall wondered why the system would adopt a new curriculum in the middle of a school year that has restrictive elements.
“Where is the community input,” he asked. “Why not call a town hall? before embarking on such a big change.
“Where is the transparency?”
Email Jack Spillane at [email protected].