New School Initiatives: Common Core State Standards

Dear Parents,

As we ease into summer, I hope this finds you well. This is the second in a series of letters addressing some of the primary initiatives for Holy Family School for the upcoming 2014-2015 school year. In my previous letter, I discussed our one-to-one iPad program; specifically, the transition from school-provided devices to family owned. If you missed it, please find it in the links below.

The purpose of this letter is to inform you about our progress in implementing of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  I will provide some general background about the CCSS, information about the work we did at Holy Family this past year, and how we will continue to implement the CCSS in the coming year.

Periodically, we will provide different CCSS resources for parents so that you can better understand and support our goals In addition to reading this letter, I encourage all who are interested in learning more to view the actual CCSS which can be found at www.corestandards.org.

Background on the Common Core. The CCSS are learning skills and concepts that our students should achieve as they move through their time at Holy Family School. Empowered by the nation’s governors, Educational experts and researchers (which included input from teachers, parents, and school administrators) developed the CCSS over several years. Their primary purpose is to raise the academic standards of K-12 students nationally in order to better prepare them for college and career.

The CCSS are an update to the previous California State Standards, which have guided Holy Family and all other Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles since 1997. Although similar to our previous state standards, they are different in some important ways; below are some of the shifts that will have in impact on teaching and learning at Holy Family:

  •  Fewer actual standards, which allow students to explore topics in greater depth;
  • Reading as much non-fiction as fiction;
  • Reading material more closely, and looking to the text for evidence of learning;
  • Greater emphasis on academic vocabulary;
  • Building of skills, within and across grades;
  • In Math, developing speed and accuracy, and being able to use skills in the real world

Frequently Asked Questions about the Common Core. Below are some of the frequently asked questions about the CCSS; I include these here to provide additional clarity and perhaps address misconceptions about the nature and purpose of the CCSS:

Why are the CCSS important?

The standards provide a clear set of expectations to ensure that students have the skills necessary to excel in college, career, and life after graduation. Because these standards are aligned to college and workforce training programs, teachers, students and parents have a clear understanding of what is required to succeed beyond high school.

Does the CCSS tell teachers what to teach?

The basic answer is no. The teachers at Holy Family know best about what works in the classroom. The standards indicate what students need to learn, but do not dictate the methods and materials used by teachers. The teachers and administration at Holy Family will always be able to decide how to best help students reach the standards.

With the new emphasis on non-fiction reading, will the learning of literature be done away with or de-emphasized?

Absolutely not. We at Holy Family recognize the importance of literature and the classics, and will continue to have our students read important literature. In fact the standards emphasize the reading of classic myths, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare.

Will the standards negatively impact faith formation in Catholic schools?

While the standards were first developed for public schools, our Catholic school educational leaders have embraced them with the understanding that our faith formation will always be paramount. In a letter signed by each of the Catholic school superintendents in the state, they note, “Catholic schools in California have always insured that the standards that guide instruction in the classroom are infused with our Catholic faith.” In support of these efforts, the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative (CCCII, which can be found at www.catholicshoolstandards.org) has been developed to assist Catholic elementary schools in infusing elements of faith formation in ways that align with the standards.

How will Assessments be developed?

As we have always done with our standards, our faculty will develop assessments and rubrics at each grade level to measure progress; these assessments will align to the skills and concepts found in the standards. As far as standardized testing, the Department of Catholic Schools will continue this year to use our IOWA Test of Basic Skills.

The CCSS and Holy Family School. This past year our faculty spent several hours learning about the CCSS, and also developing a process to implement the CCSS in a way that meets Holy Family’s needs.  These included the creation of a CCSS resource team, dedicated CCSS planning time at faculty meetings, and specific CCSS trainings for faculty sponsored by the Frostig Center (a research-based institute in Pasadena) and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The Common Core team—which consisted of five faculty members, the vice-principal, and principal—met weekly during lunch meetings to facilitate a process for faculty training; during faculty meetings, we worked primarily in smaller grade-level groups to discuss the Language Arts skills and concepts needed at each level in order to ensure a smooth transition from grade to grade. Specifically, teachers employed a coding process, in which they identified the concepts for their grade level, and how this differed from the grade below and above. We found this articulation among grades to be critically important in building the necessary skills for our students at each level of development, both across grades and subject areas.

The outside trainings gave us a greater understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of the CCSS, and also provided us with a roadmap for implementation. We also benefitted from discussions with teachers and administrators from local Catholic schools, who themselves were at similar stages of implementing the CCSS.

As a result, the faculty employed specific changes to align with the goals of the CCSS. In the classroom, there was an increased emphasis on such areas as academic vocabulary, close reading, using the text for evidence, and higher order thinking skills. These changes were also reflected in homework assignments. In some ways, the shift has been subtle, because these areas have always received our attention; but over time, because of our increased focus, we will begin to see growth related to the CCSS.

In the upcoming year we will continue our work in Language Arts, particularly with the writing standards; we will also begin the implementation of the Math standards. As part of this process, we will work closely with the leadership in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who plan to provide additional support and training to all of our Catholic schools; we will also continue to work with the Frostig Center. Additionally, we will continue with our CCSS core team, and also utilize staff development time to improve articulation across grades. As parents, depending on your child’s grade level, you can expect to see a greater emphasis on different types of writing across the subject areas.

I hope this additional information about the CCSS helps you to understand the framework provided to all Catholic schools in the state. As always, we will continue to determine the materials and methods of teaching, but will utilize the standards as a roadmap to achieve our goals. As we move forward, I welcome your feedback.

Sincerely,

Frank Montejano, Ed.D.

Principal