LACONIA — It was about four years ago that education specialist Mahesh Sharma came to the city with him the message that mastering numeracy is the key to mastering mathematics.
After his first evaluation — three intensive days of working in elementary classrooms with teachers, students and curriculum directors — he brought some bad news to the School Board in October 2011.
Only six students were taking calculus and many of the younger students had not learned enough basic mathematics to accomplish more complex tasks in later grades. More importantly, elementary teachers didn't feel "Everyday Math" — a curricula concept developed at the University of Chicago in the 1990s — was working for them.
"With Mahesh," said Laconia Curriculum Director Gail Bourn, who began her career as a K through 4 teacher. "We learned the non-negotiables that include the standards of teaching and the expectations of what the vast majority of students will master by the end of each school year."
"Children were coming into Middle School still counting on their fingers," said Woodland Heights Principal Eric Johnson yesterday. The former principal at the Middle School, Johnson taught fifth and sixth grade in Arizona before deciding on going into administration.
"There was no mastery," Asst. Superintendent Kirk Beitler added. "Mahesh believes in mastery."
Beitler was a physical education and health teacher for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Johnson, Beitler and Bourn are three of the the key partners on the School District's math team — a group that includes Middle School Academic Coordinator Alison Bryant, Elm Street Elementary School Principal Tara Beauchemin and six teacher representatives from all three elementary schools.
Their mission: to create a new School District-wide elementary math curriculum that is aligned with the Common Core standards and more in keeping with a core mastery of numeracy as defined by Sharma.
Beitler explained that after the decision was made to stop using "Everyday Math" — a decision that mirrored that made by other districts and the entire state of Rhode Island — the team initially looked a four different possible math-program successors.
A "canned" math program is one like "Everyday Math" and often involves a significant financial investment on the part of a school district. Beitler said a district the size of Laconia would easily spend $100,000 for the program itself and then have to pay for the company to come in and teach the teachers how the teach it and then pay for workbooks.
"We're talking 10 workbooks per year per student and replacing them with new ones with in every successive year," said Beitler.
Johnson said workbooks have a place and the group will be creating its own teaching tools but "getting the kids to apply the facts" is what he wants.
The math team is using a concept based on a development tool called "Understanding by Design", meaning that established and specific goals will be identified by the team as well as be aligned with the Common Core.
An example is that first graders know how to add, second graders will know how to subtract, third graders will know how to multiply and fourth graders will master division.
The teachers will define how to implement their goal using accepted standards with a core-curriculum that means, for example, students in the first grade throughout the three schools will be learning the same thing at the same pace.
"We understand that there will be children that will learn differently, said Bourn who said there will be remedial help and specialists to help these children, just as there is now.
Students will required to perform tasks that demonstrate their knowledge, they will discuss topics will be relevant to them and have real-world applications and there will be presentations by both students and teachers at all levels.
To date, the team has completed math instruction programs for K to 5 that centers on counting in kindergarten, addition up to 20 in Grade 1, addition and subtraction in Grade 2, multiplication and understanding of 2, 5,and 10 in Grade 3, multiplication and division in Grade 4 and fractions and proportionality, decimals and fractions in Grade 5.
The above is unit 1 or will be accomplished in the first 45 days of a school year.
Three advanced units in all grades will be developed by the team over the summer and will be ready to be taught to the students by the beginning of the school year.
In the fall of 2015, the team will complete the fifth unit for all grades that will take the students through the end of the 2016 school year.
The team will also develop evidence of competency — tests and quizzes — to measure student progress individually and collectively.
All three administrators said the teachers involved in developing their own curriculum are excited about it and have considered it a "great learning experience so far," said Bourn. "Before they would have been swayed by the glitz but the professional development gained by developing their own curriculum has raised their expectations.
"I have to give them (the teaching team) a lot of credit," said Bourn. "They will know what they're teaching."
"This is something I've always wanted as a principal," said Johnson. "this is what you have (for student knowledge) and this is what the kids should have after completing the units."
Johnson said that the curriculum will be a "living document" and the teams and teachers will quickly be able to identify what works and what doesn't work.
The School Board has given its blessing to the new math curriculum and is expecting periodic updates from the math team administrators.
CUTLINE: (Math Curriculum) Asst. Superintendent Kirk Beitler looks on as Curriculum Director Gail Bourn reviews a portion of the elementary math curriculum the math team is creating. (Laconia Daily Sun Photo - Gail Ober)
CUTLINE: Laconia School District K-5 mathematics curriculum map outlining the non-negotiables that must be taught for each levels. (Courtesy of the Laconia School District)