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Lake Fenton Schools, Others Implementing Common Core Initiative

Michigan and 45 states across the country brace themselves for rigorous curriculum requirements for K-12 classrooms.

In preparation for sweeping changes to school curriculum, Lake Fenton teachers are among those working to modify lesson plans so that they are in step with new academic standards approved statewide.

For instance, in some schools most ninth-graders, who might normally take Algebra, will take a new course called Secondary Mathematics 1, or an honors version of that course, which will include concepts in algebra, geometry, statistics, and pre-calculus. Language arts, meanwhile, will also be heavily revised to include more complex reading, and more emphasis on persuasive writing.

Lake Fenton hasn't made any concrete changes, but Lake Fenton Superintendent Wayne Wright said teachers are currently meshing current curriculum with the Common Core Standards.

These changes and more are slowly being rolled out in school districts around Michigan to comply with the Common Core initiative adopted by the Michigan Department of Education in 2010.

But they may come as a big surprise to some parents.

In an informal survey of school districts that reside in Patch towns in southeast Michigan, there appears to be no formal or consistent strategy for how and when parents will be told of the changes.

Wright said there are no immediate plans to hold meetings, but said many parents are aware of the changes.

Fenton superintendent Tim Jalkanen did not return phone messages.

Saline Area Schools has already hosted a special meeting for parents. And in Royal Oak Neighborhood Schools, the Parent Teacher Association has taken up the charge of helping parents understand expectations. At the start of this school year, Rochester Community Schools distributed a booklet to parents explaining the changes.

Others say there is little urgency since students actually won't be tested on the changes for a few years.

"When we get more specifics, we'll be communicating the changes and expectations to the parents in the district," responded Heidi Kast, assitant superintendent of curriculum instruction and assessment for Lake Orion Community Schools.

And in Macomb Township's Chippewa Valley Schools, officials said right now they are focusing on educating teachers and will explain changes to parents as the deadline gets closer, through newsletters, mailings and information on its cable show.

Changes underway

Students will be tested on the new standards in 2014-2015, though in most cases, the transition should take place in 2011-12, with full implementation the following year, according to the FAQ from the MDE.

The goal of Common Core is to bring uniform curriculum to K-12 classrooms throughout the United States in an attempt to align the country's educational expectations. That means students in Clawson, for instance, will be expected to know the exact same information as students in Queens, where teachers have already implemented Common Core. Educators also expect the changes will ensure students are better prepared for college with fewer needing remediation.

"Being under the same standards should be an advantage," Wright said. "There will be the same expectations everywhere, so we can make comparisons and see similarities."

Some school districts, like Chippewa Valley Schools and Utica Community Schools have already begun project planning with teacher-led curriculum councils. 

And a group in Oakland County is taking on the task as a team.

Twenty-four faculty members at Birmingham Public Schools work diligently each month to review and change district curriculum. They are part of a pilot program and are working alongside representatives from Oakland County's 28 school districts in preparation for the Common Core.

"Right now, all the districts in Oakland County are working together ... to develop units of study," Catherine Cost, assistant superintendent of instructional services at Farmington Public Schools said. "Our teachers will bring back information to share with others in the district."

This year teachers focused on number skills by developing units that enhance students' knowledge of place value, transformations (how to manipulate the shape of a line) and other areas that were targeted by Oakland's math curriculum team.

RJ Webber, assistant superintendent at Novi Community Schools, said curriculum collaboration is one of the benefits of moving to the Common Core.

"It really expands the amount of collaboration that can occur not only across a district but across the country about what lessons are really working and what things can get there," he said. "The concern that I would have is the preparation, the testing and the assessment. We're in a very high-stake testing situation right now in our country, and my concern is are these results for the Common Core and their first few iterations going to have high stakes impact and implications? If I was a teacher right now I would be concerned about that."

While the initiative requires districts to re-evaluate how they are teaching, school officials say the plan mirrors their expectation for student success.

But Common Core does have its critics. A writer at the Goldwater Institute, a public policy agency, said the initiative likely won't prepare students to compete in a global economy and hasn't proven that it will help prepare students for selective colleges. And a writer at Politco agrees there is no evidence that Common Core will achieve its goals of boosting national competitveness.

What will it cost?

Local officials are saying they don’t anticipate any extra dollars to assist with the transition. Though several have pointed to the need for technology upgrades.

Wright said he can't put a cost on the changes at the present time.

Other school officials have said it could get expensive.

“ … if the district moves to computer-based assessment, a lot of technology
improvements will be needed for the classrooms,” said David Maile, director of
instruction for Huron Valley Schools in White Lake. “This type of change could be very, very expensive, and there’s no answer on where the money would come from to support it.”

He said it could take hundreds of thousands of dollars, to faithfully implement Common Core as it’s intended. And he’s concerned the schools aren’t in a financial era with resources to do it. But regardless of the cost, people have the right idea with Common Core, Maile said.

Another big concern is the cost of teacher training.

"As teachers assist in the curriculum revision process, we have substitute teacher costs, however we do not expect to have to purchase all new materials to implement Common Core," Cheryl Rogers, superintendent of Clawson Public Schools said.

Getting parents and students on board

Stephen Palmer, assistant superintendent for instruction at Birmingham Public Schools, said he believes as the state prepares for the common core changes, there is going to be a “wake up” call for parents and students.

“It’s going to create a lot of angst and anxiety among a lot of people,” Palmer said. “More rigorous standards for underperforming schools will be tough to handle, but it’s an opportunity to change practices and focus on a few skills more deeply. I think for some, it will affect districts dramatically and the state of public education in Michigan will be questioned once again.”

Patch.com Regional Editor Teresa Mask and Fenton Patch editor Jason Alexander contributed to this report.

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