District to debut new English language curriculum this fall

The curriculum was selected to align with with state standards and the Alaska Reads Act

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District plans to debut this fall a new English language arts curriculum for elementary school students that aligns with state standards and the Alaska Reads Act.

The initiative comes as school districts around Alaska look to meet the guidelines outlined in that legislation, which Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed into law last year. The bill, among other things, created an early education program, a comprehensive reading intervention program and a school improvement reading program.

Standardized testing data published last year by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, or DEED, show that, while math and literacy proficiency rates are higher among KPBSD students than other students in Alaska, most local students are not proficient in either subject.

Roughly one in three KPBSD students are considered proficient or advanced in English language arts, while about 24.9% of students are considered proficient or advanced in math. Those results come from the Alaska System of Academic Readiness, or AK STAR, assessment, which was administered for the first time last year to most third through ninth grade students.

KPBSD, though, has already implemented some initiatives that aim to address the benchmarks set by the Alaska Reads Act.

Looking to boost local reading

First grade students at Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai, for example, late last year demonstrated to board members different ways they are learning to read. Students showed off Heggerty phonemic awareness techniques, which involved “roller coastering” words, and read from “decodable” books.

Implementation of a new English language arts curriculum would be the latest effort by KPBSD to boost literacy among elementary school students.

KPBSD Curriculum Coordinator Melissa Linton told board members during a March 6 presentation to board of education members that DEED put out an open call last year to school districts interested in participating in a K-5 early literacy core material grant.

KPBSD opted to look into the program and then signed an agreement with the State of Alaska in early November. A delegate of district staff, which Linton dubbed the KPBSD’s “core literacy team,” heard presentations from five curriculum vendors selected by DEED as top programs. Those vendors were then ranked by districts, and the state brought back the high scorers for consideration.

Information on the top four vendors was then shared with KPBSD staff by that delegation, Linton said, and published on the district’s Facebook page, with public comment requested. KPBSD’s K-5 ELA Material Review Committee then also reviewed the vendors, and heard further presentations from the top two.

Committee members, Linton said, then scored the vendors using a “more rigorous” rubric that examined material rigor, the scope and sequence of certain foundational skills and usability for teachers. That group ultimately put forth Amplify’s CKLA program for adoption.

Per DEED, the ELA Core Curriculum grant program was developed to ensure that Alaska’s elementary school classrooms have Tier 1 core ELA materials aligned with Alaska standards and the guidance described by the Alaska Reads Act. Tier 1 refers to “evidence-based core instruction that all students receive in the classroom,” according to DEED.

A map of CKLA’s instruction sequence maps out units and lessons across all grades from kindergarten through fifth grade, with specific units and lessons color coded to identify connections across grades.

Curriculum questions

Board of education members heard testimony Monday from some members of the public, including teachers, who expressed concern about four of 16 lessons outlined in one unit of instruction supplied for first graders. The lessons fall under the “Early World Civilizations” and focus on, in order, “Three World Religions,” “Judaism,” “Christianity” and “Islam.”

A teacher guide provided for the “Early World Civilizations” unit says that study of those world religions is important because of how religion has shaped the development of early civilizations. Further, it is difficult to teach other subjects in world history without referencing how religion has played a role.

“It is recommended that Grade 1 teachers discuss with their school administrator whether or not to cover the final section of the domain dealing with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” the teacher guide says.

The curriculum focuses on identifying basic similarities and differences between the three religions while “fostering an understanding of and respect for those similarities and differences.” It is recommended that teachers employ a tone of “respect and balance” while talking about the topics and refer questions about truth and rightness to adults at home, the guide says.

Other topics addressed in the “Early World Civilizations” unit include Mesopotamia and Babylon, with core vocabulary words such as “flooding” and “tradition” identified for specific lessons. Each lesson describes the material’s speaking and listening, reading, language and writing focuses, as well as a capstone formative assessment.

A recurring concern among people who testified Monday was whether or not the religion lessons were appropriate for first grade students.

Donna Anderson said she has been employed with the district since 1999 and has taught classes from kindergarten through fourth grade. She questioned whether the feedback solicited by the district meaningfully represented the way the community feels about the lessons that talk about religion, which she said are controversial.

“My concern is not with the skill section,” Anderson told board members Monday. “My concern is with the appropriateness of disguising teaching history and reading comprehension with the study of religion.”

Lindsey Bertoldo, of Nikiski, said she experienced conflict between her religious beliefs and curriculum while in college and doesn’t want children to face the same situation.

“I remember being faced with having to agree with evolution (and) the Big Bang theory on my science test and feeling like, ‘Do I say what they want me to say in order to get a better grade? Or do I say what I believe and you know, and face the consequences?’” Bertoldo said. “I don’t think kids should be faced with that right or wrong coming from their teachers.”

KPBSD Assistant Superintendent Kari Dendurent said during Monday’s board meeting that, if there is controversy over pieces of the curriculum, the district will respond by having a conversation with school site administration to determine if the course is the best fit and determine if supplementary material is needed.

“We did note that the publisher did put out there that there might be some concern,” Dendurent said. “Well, how do we handle that? We handle that by having a conversation with our site-based administrators to determine is this the best fit? If for some reason, we are feeling that those are controversial, as we’ve had other topics out there that different schools have felt are controversial, is (there) something that we can do to supplement?”

Ultimately, Dendurent said the top consideration of the Alaska Reads Act is what school districts are doing to ensure classrooms are working with curricula that establish a solid learning foundation for students.

“The most important thing with this Alaska Reads Act is what are we doing to find research-based evidence-based curriculum to be able to lay a good foundation of knowledge for our students, so that they can learn to read for that information piece of it (and) also (learn) that love of reading,” Dendurent said.

In deciding to pursue a new English language arts curriculum, KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland said Monday that he was interested in the district competing for a grant that would allow them to try out a top literacy program.

“I did ask that we move forward with that process and, through that … the state actually narrowed it down to four based on the input, and the district down to two,” Holland said Monday. “We had the choice between them and the district chose Amplify (CKLA) after collecting input from the committee they worked with and from all the feedback.”

Monday’s board of education meeting can be streamed on the KPBSD Board Docs page.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.