PORTLAND – For at least 20 years, curriculum development in the city’s public schools has been left to individual schools and, in some cases, to individual teachers.

The result? The literacy curriculum in Maine’s largest school district is “disjointed” from one grade level to the next, according to Superintendent Jim Morse. Its math curriculum is inconsistent from school to school. Its health curriculum is nonexistent.

That’s all about to change, Morse said Tuesday evening during an informal meeting of the School Committee’s new curriculum subcommittee.

The district is planning a multiyear effort to develop a coordinated curriculum for each subject from pre-kindergarten through high school, Morse said.

“This is the beginning of something great,” Morse told about 30 teachers and principals who attended the teacher-focused session at East End Community School.

“We will (develop) curriculum with defined outcomes and high expectations that are approached in a systemic way,” Morse said. “It shouldn’t be an accident of who you have as an algebra teacher (that determines) how well you perform on math assessment tests.”

The unified curriculum will define the skills and knowledge that students are expected to master at each grade level, including the transitions from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school. It also will reflect state and national learning standards and may incorporate curriculum examples from other districts.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Morse said. “We have a lot of school systems in Maine that have done this work, and we should reach out to them.”

Teachers and principals embraced the prospect of a unified curriculum that encompasses the breadth of teaching being done in Portland’s 10 elementary, three middle and three high schools.

They noted the need to include new technology, special education and multilingual education in the planning process.

“I’m so excited for this,” said Tonya LaChance Bufano, a first-grade teacher at East End. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

Joan Gildart, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary School, said it’s good that Portland teachers identify with their schools, but teaching staffs have become insular.

“We have lost our identity as ‘the Portland public schools,’” Gildart told the subcommittee.

Cindy Rotolo, a fourth-grade teacher at East End, said having a unified curriculum will allow teachers to focus on their work in the classroom and diminish the feeling that student success is a “moving target.”

Morse, who became superintendent in July, said the district will incorporate some of the curriculum work that has been done by individual schools. However, he said, teachers must find common ground to improve student performance across the district.

“Youngsters move through this city and without common expectations we create unnecessary hurdles for kids,” Morse said. “The success of Portland schools depends on us working together.”

Garry Fox, a biology teacher at Portland High School, said a unified curriculum will encourage cooperation between faculty at Portland, Deering and Casco Bay high schools. In recent years, he said, academic competition has grown between the three schools.

“We all drank the Kool-Aid, and it wasn’t good. It isn’t good,” Fox said.

Morse said the unified curriculum won’t dictate exactly how teachers provide instruction or interfere with the individual character of each school, but it will set benchmarks to measure student success.

“It isn’t about cookie-cutter education,” said Sarah Thompson, the School Committee’s curriculum chairwoman. “But we are hoping to (have) a little more system thinking.”

Curriculum development will begin in earnest next fall, after Morse appoints a chief academic officer and curriculum coordinators for math and science and literacy and the humanities.

Health and science curricula likely will be developed first, with literacy and math curricula to follow because they will require greater coordination of existing programs, said the superintendent.

Teachers will be asked to help design curricula during paid staff development days and voluntary unpaid sessions, Morse said.

Morse said it will take at least two years to develop a unified curriculum for all subjects, but it will help promote equity across a district with diverse school resources and student needs.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]