Politics & Government

Wrong way on 'Reading Street'?

Parents at Durham elementary schools are still fired up over a newly required reading curriculum they say focuses too much on tests and will leave teachers with little room for creativity.

But officials say the "Reading Street' curriculum will leave plenty of room for teachers to individualize instruction at all 29 elementary schools.

Concerned parents and teachers have been meeting for the last two weeks to discuss concerns over the use of Reading Street, which builds literacy by using stories from workbooks and prescribing set amounts of time for different activities like independent reading and group workbook exercises.

School officials met with parents last Friday at Club Boulevard Elementary, a humanities-focused magnet where opposition to the program has been the most vocal. Stacey Wilson-Norman, assistant superintendent for elementary curriculum and instruction, said the meeting was helpful.

"We've met with academic coaches to receive feedback and understand concerns from teachers, and we plan to incorporate some of their ideas and feedback pretty quickly," she said.

The meeting was held the morning after several parents expressed their dissatisfaction to the school board.

"Curriculum change implemented four days before the start of school is simply destructive," Ann Rebeck, parent of two Club Boulevard students, told the school board.

At the school board meeting, Superintendent Carl Harris acknowledged there had been a "communications breakdown."

Many teachers said they had not seen the material until a week before school, when they first learned it was being required.

"The literacy initiative has been presented and is being implemented in a very top-down fashion, which is having a very chilling effect on teachers and classrooms," Marty Ramirez, a Forest View Elementary School teacher and parent of two Club Boulevard Elementary School students, said at the school board meeting.

Wilson-Norman said to make it less stressful, teachers have been given three weeks' worth of lesson plans until they are ready to adapt it to their liking.

"These three weeks' worth of plans may be why some parents think the program is scripted," she said.

Durham Public Schools purchased the materials in 2006 using allocated state textbook funds. The decision to require the curriculum follows a February literacy audit that found Durham schools falling short, Wilson-Norman said. Schools were supposed to follow the Reading Street model but were inconsistent, she said.

School board member Stephen Martin alluded to the curriculum controversy at last week's school board meeting while discussing a different policy.

"A curriculum change does not simply happen from the top down," Martin said. He reiterated that teachers and subject coordinators from schools meet with board members to decide which materials to purchase and what shifts in curriculum should occur. "It gets vetted. It doesn't just trickle down."

Reading Street was developed in 2005 by publisher Scott Foresman to help schools meet No Child Left Behind standards. It is currently used by more than 10,000 schools in the country.

Parents think it focuses too much on teaching to pass tests and removes books from the classroom. School officials said parents were misinformed about the program.

"I would certainly never, ever support anything that was not in the best interest of our students," Harris said. "Proficiency is a minimum level of achievement."

But the district is still working to improve test scores. Club Boulevard Elementary did not meet federal standards for adequate yearly progress, and just under 60 percent of students there were proficient on last year's math and reading exams.

Club Boulevard emphasizes using "authentic literature" in classrooms, according to the school's Web site.

The Reading Street curriculum includes novels and other books, Wilson-Norman said. Writing is integrated into every lesson, and the new emphasis won't crowd out math, social studies or recess, she said.

"We will continue to work with our magnet schools to make sure their magnet philosophy remains intact," she said. "We will continue to address and reflect on the needs of the magnet school as well as the needs of ensuring quality literacy instruction."

Parents are also worried that teachers who don't follow the curriculum exactly will be fired. Wilson-Norman said academic coaches will be on hand at all schools to help teachers -- not to "watch how they dot their i's and cross their t's."

"I think it's just the unknown for teachers right now," she said. "We wanted to act in the best interest of our students, and we want teachers and students to continue doing the great things they have been doing. We just want it to bring it under a more consistent framework."