SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 1, 2013

Column: 'Try hard and learn a lot'

Shawna Erps
The Salem News

---- — The motto of Carlton School is to “try hard and learn a lot.”

After a year of planning, we are now several months into our journey as an Innovation School, and that motto has held true for both students and staff. We are working hard to establish a learning community with high expectations while encouraging kids to be curious about the world around them and to try their best in everything they do.

The Carlton School opened this fall as a Massachusetts Department of Education Innovation School. We were lucky enough to kick off our school year with a visit from Gov. Deval Patrick, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and Education Secretary Paul Reville, who came to see our plan in action. It was quite an honor and made for an exciting start to the school year.

Our new model is based on the idea of continuous progress. This means our focus has shifted from teaching classes of children to teaching individual children who learn at different rates and in different ways. Instruction is geared toward small groups of children working on the same skill or concept, rather than an entire class learning the same skills and concepts at the same time and in the same way. Frequent assessments and record keeping ensure that teachers are monitoring growth and are aware when a student’s skills are not progressing.

The goal is to move all of our students along a continuum of learning in all content areas. This continuum is based on the skills outlined in the Massachusetts Common Core. We have also developed a continuum for personal and social growth. Our students are able to move through the curriculum on a trimester basis rather than a yearly one. As students master grade-level skills, they would be able to move ahead before the end of a school year when students are typically promoted. Conversely, students can spend an additional trimester in a grade in order to master the skills needed to move on without repeating an entire school year. Moving a child on would require a meeting with the student, the parents and all of the teachers who work with the child, as well as documentation that shows the child has mastered the content and skills. This process places emphasis on the student to be equally responsible for their learning.

Because we are focused on children as individuals, we have moved away from the traditional grade configuration and assessment process. Grades one and two and grades four and five are combined into multi-graded classrooms, which have been named Primary 2 and Elementary 2. This allows students to spend two years with their teacher, who will know them and their learning style better, thus improving instruction and minimizing transition time. Kindergarten (Primary 1) will remain as a single grade to allow students to acclimate to their first elementary school experience. However, students at Carlton are entering kindergarten in the trimester after they turn 5. This means students will be joining the classes throughout the year, which thus creates a more diverse group that mirrors our multi-graded classes. Third grade (Elementary 1) has also remained a single grade in order to solidify their early learning skills and prepare them for the high expectations in E2. This is also the first year they participate in state testing.

Our schedule was designed to give each class an uninterrupted literacy and math block. We also implemented a content block where students can engage in the content areas such as science and social studies in an inquiry- and project-based environment. The science integration specialist works as part of the grade-level teams to design and carry out lessons related to science topics outlined in the Massachusetts science frameworks.

The Carlton staff spent a year planning a school model they felt would meet the needs of their students, would help them take more ownership of their learning, and would engage them in real and meaningful ways. All of this was done with the ultimate goal of increasing student achievement. We are now four months into the process. It isn’t an easy one or a neat one, but it is definitely a worthwhile one. We have encountered some roadblocks along the way and have found ways around them. We have pulled together as a community of educators and parents. The culture of our school is slowly shifting. We expect great things from our students and are excited to be teaching in ways that we feel will close the achievement gap so our students can be successful in school.

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Shawna Erps is reading specialist at Carlton School. This is one in a regular series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.