Thursday, June 13, 2024

Instruction at Cambridge’s Haggerty School on Sept. 9, 2021. (Photo: Marc Levy)

In a first-time move for the district, Cambridge Public Schools will use an aligned literacy curriculum across its 12 elementary schools starting in September.

The $1 million investment to implement what’s called Amplify CKLA will standardize the literacy curriculum for first- through fifth-graders across and within schools. Currently, there is no standardization of curriculum, even between teachers teaching the same grade at the same school, said Emily Bryan, director of English-language arts and literacy for Cambridge.

“It’s our moral obligation as adults and as educators to ensure that all students, especially those who are struggling and those who are furthest from justice, are deeply and consistently engaged in high-quality instruction,” Bryan said.

The curriculum arrives with elementary- and middle-school days getting an additional 30 minutes of learning time as of the 2024-2025 year – timing that supports the implementation of the new curriculum by ensuring teachers have ample time to teach it.

The hope is that by standardizing the curriculum, outcomes across schools will become more equitable.

“We’re trying to address systemic inequity, systemic issues and systemic disparities in student outcomes with a systemic approach through a high-quality curriculum that we are supporting with professional development and school-based coaching,” Bryan said.

In the Cambridge upper schools, serving students in grades six through eight, the district recently adopted a different aligned literacy curriculum called Fishtank.

“We have seen in the upper schools exactly what I’m talking about wanting to see in elementary schools next year: increased student engagement, increased educator collaboration,” Bryan said. “Every single one of our upper schools, in the midyear assessment, demonstrated both increased student proficiency and increased student growth.”

Bryan trusts that the success the district’s five upper schools have had with aligned curriculum will translate to the 12 elementary schools.

Adoption process

The idea to align literacy curriculum at the elementary-school level came from interviews Bryan held with almost 200 staff members when she started her job three years ago. In her conversations, she found educators expressing a need for alignment in curriculum and in coaching and interventions. A literacy leadership team was formed, and once the group established a common understanding of what they were looking for in a curriculum, they started evaluating options.

The group heard presentations from the curricular companies angled specifically toward Cambridge’s priorities, reviewed the print and digital resources, did a comparative analysis with the Office of Multilingual Learners to determine which programs would best support dual-language learners and students with individualized education programs, and visited classrooms in Malden, Lawrence and Quincy that were using these programs.

“When we were speaking with Malden, they told us they came to the same final three that we did, and they shared with us how they got to their decision, which was really helpful,” Bryan said.

The goal, she noted, was not to find a “unicorn.”

“A perfect curriculum that’s going to meet all of our needs just doesn’t exist,” Bryan said. “So we said, we’re not looking for a unicorn, we’re looking for the strongest horse.”

In the end, Amplify CKLA was chosen, and Bryan’s team is taking steps to adapt it as needed to fit Cambridge’s needs.

It was selected in large part for its extension of instruction in grades three, four and five that Bryan said often ends in the primary grades “so they can really start to build and strengthen the skills that allow them to read increasingly complex texts and to write with increasingly complex language,” Bryan said.

Other draws? There are components for Spanish-language and English-as-a-second-language instruction that syncs supplemental and classroom lessons, detailed letters for caregivers and a supporting online program. “This curriculum adoption helps us to address core instruction, intervention, screening, family engagement, and professional development,” Bryan said. “All of those different pieces are ultimately going to align, and our goal is that we will see, consistently and hopefully urgently, the closing of disparities in student outcomes.”

Educator approved

Dan Monahan, president of the Cambridge Education Association, called it a “really thoughtful process.”

“The other option would have been for someone to just have decided we’re using this new curriculum, and then told everyone they had to do it,” he said.

As head of the union, he’s focused on making sure teachers have adequate professional development and appropriate compensation as they adjust to the curriculum.

“Those have been addressed well, so I don’t have any worries right now,” Monahan said.

Bryan acknowledged that although it may take time, she’s confident that the new curriculum will be a good change for students, teachers and families.

“We want to make sure that every single one of our students is prepared to succeed in high school and college or the career of their choice, and that they have the literacy skills and the world knowledge to have a choice-filled life,” Bryan said.