Choice, curriculum and a promising path to better readers

At Forest City Adventist School in Orlando, Kindergarten teacher Nahomy Santana leads her students in an English language arts lesson that focuses on the continents of Africa and Antarctica. A curriculum that weaves geography, history, science, art and other subjects into reading and writing is proving to be much more effective in building reading skill, Santana said. “It connects everything for them … and builds a bigger picture,” she said. “They are much more interested and engaged.”

LEESBURG, Fla. – It’s not that Theresa Chang’s sons, Liam and Joshua, didn’t like books before. It’s just that now they’re infatuated to the point of feuding. The fourth-grader and fifth-grader are gravitating to more books, more advanced books, and yes, sometimes even squabbling over books one or the other thought he “owned” because he was the first to set it aside to read.

“Many times, I’ll find both of them reading the ‘forbidden’ books when the owner falls asleep,” said Chang, a former nursing home administrator who’s now a stay-at-home mom.

The trigger for the book battles?

Chang said everything changed when the boys’ school, St. Paul Catholic School, transitioned last year to a different curriculum.

In English language arts, the new curriculum weaves history, science, art and other subjects into reading and writing, as opposed to treating them as subjects in silos. In Chang’s words, it’s “interdisciplinary” rather than “piecemeal.”

St. Paul Catholic School in Leesburg is one of five schools participating in the pilot project. Here, seventh-grade teacher Sissy Revord leads her class in a “Socratic seminar,” one of many instructional routines the Wit & Wisdom curriculum employs to maximize student engagement.

The new content is more challenging than what the school used prior, Chang said. But it’s paired with teaching strategies that not only keep her boys’ interest but inspire them – on their own – to dig deeper.

“This curriculum,” Chang said, “has been a game changer.”

Strong evidence has long supported use of a content-rich curriculum to help students acquire strong vocabularies and reading comprehension skill. Building knowledge and literacy in this deliberate, sequenced way has proven effective for struggling readers and students disadvantaged by poverty. Supporters pitch it as a powerful strategy to bring more equity into an education system that has mostly failed to narrow achievement gaps. Yet few schools, public or private, have tried it.

In Florida, five private schools are together taking the path less traveled.

All five have strong majorities of students using school choice scholarships, most for low-income families. And all of them just finished the first year of a voluntary pilot project that aims to show what happens when schools focus on culture and curriculum.

The five are St. Paul Catholic School in Leesburg, Alpha Learning Academy in Orlando, Forest City Adventist School in Orlando, Walker Memorial Academy in Avon Park, and Heartland Christian Academy in Sebring. The curriculum they’re using is Wit & Wisdom for English language arts (ELA) and Eureka Math, both produced by Great Minds.

Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers several state scholarship programs and hosts this blog, is leading the pilot, guided by research from the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy that concludes high-quality curriculum, strong school culture and excellent teachers are key to driving student achievement. This story focuses on the ELA piece.

Implementing a new curriculum would have been tough enough without a pandemic. But despite the challenges, the pilot schools report strong anecdotal evidence that they’re getting traction and, in some cases, seeing encouraging preliminary data.

Shakelia Henderson is principal of Alpha Learning Academy, a K-5 school in Orlando with 110 students, all of them Black and using school choice scholarships.

“What I’ve noticed in students is that they have taken more ownership in their learning,” Shakelia Henderson, principal of Alpha Learning Academy, wrote in an email. “They are more engaged in discussions; the discussions are more enriched than what I’ve observed before. The level of critical thinking has gone through the roof!”

“The students are not just sitting there, waiting for an idea,” said Rebekah Kogelschatz, a former public school teacher who’s headmaster at Heartland Christian. “When I’m in a first-grade classroom, they’re not just saying, ‘I’m seeing the lizard.’ They’re saying, ‘It’s smiling.’ ‘It’s in the background.’ They’ve been taught to gather the details.”

“The thinking, the discussing, the debating, it’s just very intentional now,” Kogelschatz continued. “It wasn’t that way before.”

***

Many schools treat reading comprehension as a set of skills that can be developed apart from academic content. Skills like finding the main idea, finding supporting details, comparing and contrasting. But solid research shows reading skill grows in concert with the acquisition of knowledge.

In other words, students read better when they know more.

Some believe the rise of high-stakes testing exacerbated the problem. In an effort to boost scores, many schools devote more time to reading skills and strategies – and less time on history, science, art and other subjects. The prevalence of this approach might help explain why reading scores have improved in elementary grades, but stalled beyond that.

“The irony, or the tragedy really, is that those subjects that have been eliminated … are the subjects that really could convey the knowledge and the vocabulary that would boost students’ reading comprehension and ultimately their test scores,” said Natalie Wexler, author of “The Knowledge Gap,” a go-to primer on the merits of a content-rich curriculum. “We’ve really been shooting ourselves in the foot.”

The pervasive practice of grouping students by reading “level” may be counterproductive, too. It leaves many students with instruction that is below grade level, with texts that do not challenge them. Why, supporters of a content-rich curriculum ask, would educators deprive their students of the opportunities to build this knowledge in their elementary school years?

There’s no good reason why more schools can’t switch. An assortment of high-quality curricula is available, with costs comparable to lesser options. But given the inertia of districts on this front, some advocates say schools of choice may be better positioned to blaze a trail.

Education writer Robert Pondiscio, a leading voice for the building-knowledge approach, points out that relatively speaking, schools of choice – charter schools and private schools – are much more likely than traditional public schools to have adopted a content-rich curriculum.

“Schools of choice that implement a knowledge-rich curriculum well and willingly are a proof point,” Pondiscio wrote. “The more of them we have making a difference for kids, the more persuasive the case will be to educators, policymakers, and parents.”

***

Sissy Revord’s classroom under the terracotta tiles at St. Paul Catholic School doesn’t look like an outpost on the education frontier. It looks like every other middle school classroom. But it sure sounds different.

Mrs. Revord primed a class discussion by asking 18 seventh-graders what they knew about Benjamin Rush, a doctor and civic leader in Philadelphia who signed the Declaration of Independence. Her class was studying Rush as part of an ELA module on the Revolutionary War.

The students reeled off a dozen facts. Then the fun began.

“Would you consider Rush heroic for his time?” Revord asked.

What followed was a “Socratic seminar,” one of many instructional routines Wit & Wisdom employs to maximize engagement. This kind of exercise in learning through speaking, listening, and respectful debate is not unique to Wit & Wisdom. But in the five pilot schools, it’s spurring classroom conversations that teachers say are unusually deep, inclusive and … joyful.

Mrs. Revord intervened at times to draw out more detail. But it was clear her students not only knew the subject matter, they liked talking about it.

Rush was, in many ways, ahead of his time, they said. He was an abolitionist. He supported women’s rights. He helped the mentally ill. When yellow fever ravaged Philadelphia, many wealthy residents left. But Rush stayed to help.

“He was a symbol of hope,” one student said. “A leader, basically, in a dark time.”

But, but, but. Other students pointed out Rush clung to outdated medical practices like bloodletting, with often disastrous results for his patients. He had unfounded beliefs about the yellow fever risk to African Americans.

“He felt they could not get the disease,” one student said, so he encouraged them to stay and help the sick. But he was wrong – and hundreds of Black residents died as a result.

On their own, the students toggled between past and present. Discussing epidemics and treatments in Rush’s day led them to reference Covid-19 and resistance to masks and vaccines. During both epidemics, one student said, “some people wanted to blame other people” for starting or spreading the disease.

The conversation wasn’t all heavy. At the first sign of illness, some panicked Philadelphia households threw family members out on the street, inspiring one student to simulate a heave-ho. “Sorry grandma!” she said, prompting a round of giggles.

Cluck if you want. But Mrs. Revord’s class was anything but boring.

***

St. Paul reflects the changing demographics of Leesburg, an Old Florida citrus town that’s become a satellite on the edge of metro Orlando.

About half of St. Paul’s 200 students are Hispanic, and about half of them are English language learners. More than 120 students use school choice scholarships for families of modest means. Fourteen others use scholarships for students with special needs, including Chang’s son Joshua.

Debbie Ahearn, a former middle school English teacher who became St. Paul’s principal last year, said many teachers initially feared the new curriculum was too challenging. Their views changed, she said, when students like those in Mrs. Revord’s class responded with a passion they did not expect.

Second-graders, it turned out, loved learning about Ruby Bridges and the meaning of “segregation.” Third graders couldn’t stop talking about Galileo and “bioluminescence.”

In Bridget Tribby’s fifth-grade class, some students were tearful when they had to return “The Phantom Tollbooth,” a young adult novel that was part of an ELA module. “They wanted to read it again,” Tribby said. “The engagement is that intense through every module.”

A hundred miles south, the same thing happened at Heartland Christian in rural Highlands County. Seventy-five percent of the 270 students use school choice scholarships, most of them for low-income families.

Kogelschatz, the headmaster, said Heartland had to make a change. It wasn’t seeing enough collaboration and inquiry. Too many students were not reaching grade level. Through no fault of their own, she said, many Heartland students lack the background knowledge needed to bolster reading comprehension. The school needed a curriculum that would give them that knowledge, she said.

The new curriculum has meant a new way of work for teachers, too.

Wit & Wisdom is heavily scripted. The pacing is brisk. Some teachers, Kogelschatz said, wanted to fall back into old habits, like using work sheets. But all of them rolled up their sleeves and rose to the occasion.

“They’re just moving through this curriculum now,” she said last month. “It’s clicking.”

***

St. Stephen Catholic School is a PreK-8 school in the booming Tampa suburb of Riverview. It’s not part of the pilot, but its demographics are similar. Two thirds of its students are Black or Hispanic. More than 40% use choice scholarships.

Assistant Principal Gina Robles said the school decided to switch curriculum after seeing a lack of growth in reading proficiency, particularly in grades 3-5. With the previous curriculum, she said, students were drifting to reading materials based on their interest and reading level. They weren’t stretching.

In 2018, St. Stephen shifted grades 3-5 to Wit & Wisdom.

“We said, ‘Let’s see how it goes. If we like it, we’ll expand,’” said Robles. “After year one, we realized how much our kids had not been challenged.”

St. Stephen added grades 6-8 in 2019, then grades K-2 in 2020.

Over the past three years, the percentage of students reading at or above grade level has risen from 69% to 84%.

“It’s just amazing to walk in and see students having a deep discussion about a subject that matters,” Robles said. “They can use the evidence to support their opinions. They can object and debate respectfully.”

Turns out, they can read better, too.

At St. Paul, Theresa Chang said Joshua struggled with one of the first instructional routines last fall, a word play exercise. But the hiccup didn’t last. Instead, Joshua and his brother grew enamored with the subjects they were learning.

“They even have conversations with each other about what they’re reading,” Chang said.

Just as soon as they’re done fighting over what book is next.