Journal Inquirer: Vernon schools tops in promoting Common Core standards

by David Huck

VERNON — The school system is $1,000 richer, thanks to an effective campaign to familiarize parents with new Common Core educational standards.

School officials, two area politicians, a parent, and representatives from the Connecticut Council for Education Reform — the organization that sponsored the contest — gathered Wednesday at the Northeast Elementary School library to mark the award from a contest.

With the win, the school system received a $1,000 check. The money will go toward purchasing three tripod video setups that would allow educators to digitally record a teacher or themselves with an iPad in an effort to improve teaching practices.

The occasion, however, was marked by officials defending and praising the Common Core standards — which have received a cool reception from some.

CCER distributed a flier that discusses the “top Common Core myths and facts.”

CCER Executive Director Jeffrey Villar said the standards are “an instrumental change that has the potential to make significant differences” in the way children learn by raising expectations.

CCER is a nonprofit based in New Haven that describes its aim as working toward narrowing the achievement gap.

Villar said the Vernon school system was selected for its innovative efforts to reach out to parents. Officials developed videos that were put on YouTube, distributed transcripts of meetings, held parent workshops, discussed the curriculum at board meetings, and sent home traditional fliers to households.

“Parents have to be partners at the table if we’re going to work to raise expectations for children,” Villar said.

Educators described the shift to the Common Core as moving from “teacher-directed instruction to student-driven learning.”

Ana Smith, a first-grade teacher with 25 years of experience, said that during her time she has seen many curriculums “come and go” but is a proponent of the new standards.

She said students are now allowed to better understand what is expected of them.

“This is important because if a student understands what and why they are learning about a certain subject, then there is a greater sense of purpose behind the learning,” Smith said.

In math, for example, there has been a shift from the memorization of math facts to “understanding what math is all about,” Smith said.

Students are encouraged to discuss with one another how they arrive at an answer and are therefore held more accountable for their learning, teachers say.

Another Northeast School teacher, Kristen Chepeleff, said she sees her students learning with more rigor and depth.

“I have witnessed first-graders grow into readers who are able to compare characters across books and connect to them through their own experiences and truly begin a journey towards a love of reading,” Chepeleff said.

Rosalind McFadden, whose daughter Savannah is a fifth-grader at the school, said she is excited and supportive for Common Core because of its “uniformity” and “consistency.”

Should she ever leave New England, McFadden said, she feels comfortable knowing her daughter would be able to easily adjust to the standards of a new school system.

With her children, McFadden said she encourages them to ask “why or know why” during their learning rather than just “doing something.”

She said the standards would prepare her daughter for a national and international job market.

Superintendent of Schools Mary P. Conway said the school system’s work of implementing Common Core is only in its infancy.

She said the standards are a new way of learning and teaching, so some teachers are struggling with the new instruction.

“We’re trying and will continue to try to share information with the community and parents so they can understand how they can partner in their child’s education with these high standards,” Conway said.

“New England doesn’t like to change,” Rep. Timothy J. Ackert, R-Coventry, said in remarking on resistance to the Common Core standards.

The Common Core has been in discussion for the last several years, but only recently have the standards been incorporated into new lesson plans.

Previously, Smith said, her lesson plans were scripted, but Common Core has allowed her to be more creative.

“We really love it,” she said.

Smith said that in time she believes some of the negative reaction that has come with Common Core will dissipate, as more parents understand the changes.

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