South Huntington schools invite parents back to school to learn about new college and career standards
When parents at the Silas Wood Sixth Grade Center in South Huntington, New York, began asking questions about the unfamiliar assignments their children were bringing home last fall, teachers thought they deserved answers. So, the teachers with the support of teacher leaders put together an evening demonstration of how the State’s new college and career ready standards had changed both how they were teaching and what students were expected to do.
On January 8, the night of the demonstration, the notorious polar vortex of the winter of 2014 slammed into Long Island, and the temperature plunged into the single digits. Undeterred, the teachers went ahead with the event and hundreds of parents braved the cold and sat through sample lessons in mathematics and English language arts to learn how to ask their children questions like those they hear in school.
“Instead of just asking their kids how their day went, they might say ‘I’m noticing that your homework is different. I wonder what you can teach me about that,’” said Stephanie Brown, a sixth grade English language arts teacher and “parent academy” organizer. “We taught them how to do a close read of text. So, when they’re home and a child has to read something, they can ask, ‘What’s the gist of the first three paragraphs?’”
Brown and her South Huntington colleagues join educators across the country who are rising to the challenge of elevating their expectations and asking students to engage more deeply in their learning so they graduate from high school ready for the rigors of college and careers. They also are trying to engage parents in the process. “It’s a way we can put the power of the Common Core in the hands of the parents, and not just keep it to ourselves,” Brown said. As the primary and trusted resource for parents, teachers hold a critical role in not only advancing students’ academic skills but also in building parents’ understanding of the changes taking place in the classroom. Teacher leaders have been instrumental in this transition to the new standards by not only modeling instructional techniques and collaboratively planning Common Core aligned lessons, but also by helping teachers to put into action creative strategies to outreach to parents.
In the words of New York State Education Department Assistant Commissioner for Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Julia Rafal-Baer, “the goal is to not only empower district leaders, but also principals and teachers, to feel comfortable as change agents and in communicating about what’s happening in the classroom.” Effective parent outreach and engagement is one of the primary goals of many of the districts supported by the state’s Strengthening Teacher and Leader Effectiveness (STLE) grants, including the South Huntington School District.
South Huntington is a 6,000-student, racially, linguistically, and economically diverse district about 40 miles east of Manhattan. About 40 percent of its students are from low-income families and about 15 percent are not fluent in English. Academically, it exceeds statewide proficiency rates in English language arts and mathematics.
South Huntington is providing educators with career advancement opportunities by serving in roles such as parent liaisons, and instructional coaches supporting the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and using data to improve instruction and for the creation of K-12 teacher mentor positions. Teacher leaders serve as mentors who provide grade specific consulting to new and early career teachers through support such as modeling instructional techniques, co-teaching lessons, and facilitating stronger home-school-family connections. Jared Bloom, the supervisor of assessment and technology in South Huntington, said the district also was able to rely on their teacher leaders to host a variety of teacher-led events to help families support their children’s learning and build understanding about the district’s transition to the Common Core State Standards.
Strengthening Home-School Connections
South Huntington’s teachers are creating “these incredible connections with families, a core function we hoped we’d see,” Rafal-Baer said. Districts across New York are working to engage families more deeply. South Huntington “is giving families a seat at the table as authentic partners in their child’s education as part of the district strategic plan to drive student success.” To share South Huntington’s efforts and strategies, the State made a video featuring the experience of students, teachers and parents.
“This year has been phenomenal for my daughter,” Michelle Murphy, whose daughter is in Brown’s class, says on the video. “The English module that they have been working on has really allowed her to challenge herself in ways that she hasn’t been able to.”
Murphy praised the district for informing parents about the new standards. “We’ve had many opportunities to hear about the Common Core and to learn about what the children are being taught,” she said. “I think the district has been very candid about understanding that it’s new for everyone and we’re all kind of working together.”
Helping Parents Help Their Children Succeed
South Huntington’s commitment to parent engagement began three years ago with an effort called Project Excel, which had as one of its purposes equipping them to help their children not just academically but in other ways as well. South Huntington deputy superintendent Jacqueline Harris said the response was so positive that the district decided to open the monthly meetings up to all of its parents. That has grown into a much broader engagement effort, which has become increasingly focused on helping parents understand New York’s new college- and career-ready standards.
Hundreds Attend ‘Parent University’
The biggest parent engagement event of school year 2013-2014 was the Third Annual Parent University, held May 1. The hundreds of parents who attended could choose from among 47 presentations on a wide-ranging set of issues including college preparation, bullying, social media and drug and alcohol abuse prevention. This year, the “university” included several sessions led by teachers that gave parents opportunities to learn about the Common Core State Standards.
“The district is out there so parents can get their questions answered so they’ll understand what is actually being done in classrooms and not just what they’ve heard through the grapevine,” said Faith Saget, who has two sons, a senior and a freshman. “You hear all kinds of things, but it’s important to really hear from the source.”Tonia Cooke went to the parent university with her eighth-grade daughter, an honors student. Together, they looked at several mathematics websites that her daughter thought were fun and stimulating. Cooke said she works long hours as a medical assistant and appreciates that her daughter’s teachers are “allies” who help her ensure her daughter is successful academically. “She will be prepared for whatever tests or assessments they can throw her way,” Cooke said.
Staying Focused on Good Teaching
Superintendent David Bennardo said the focus on parent engagement and support was already well established in the district before he arrived two years ago. “We have great relationships with our parents and fantastic teachers and as a result, our students are benefiting from the new standards,” he said.
One of those teachers is Kellianne Roth, Teacher of the Year at South Huntington’s Birchwood Intermediate School. “If they keep hearing positive messages from their teachers, from their parents and from the principal, they’ll completely believe in their own potential,” she said of her students. “It’s like everything else with children, if they see adults who are positive and acting as good role models, they’ll be able to do it.”
- Empower teachers to serve as partners. Parents trust their children’s teachers, so teachers should be empowered to serve as ambassadors to explain and illustrate changes in instruction and expectations.
- Make support accessible to families. Evening events must be made as convenient as possible for parents. Serving dinner, providing child care, making translators available and putting teachers in leadership roles all contribute to success.
- Engage parents as partners in student successes. When districts work hard to engage parents as partners and answer their questions, they’re less likely to be swayed by criticisms found on social media.
- Build a culture of high expectations for all. When students are presented with challenging new tasks, they need to know that their teachers and parents believe they have the potential to succeed.
Q&A with Stephanie Brown, sixth grade English language arts teacher and Common Core coach at Silas Wood Sixth Grade Center in South Huntington.
Q. How do you feel about helping your colleagues incorporate the new standards into their teaching?
A. I wear two hats in our building. I get to step out of that little closed world of my classroom, which is usually my kingdom, and jump into other classrooms and interact with my colleagues. I absolutely love the Common Core. I’ve never achieved such depth and excitement in my classroom, and I’m sending out the message to my colleagues that this is a really cool, exciting moment in our lives and let’s embrace it.
Q. How do you feel about the concerns being expressed regarding the standards and assessments?
A. I blanch every time I hear it on the news. It’s all negative about the testing. But the Common Core is not the test. It’s a different way of engaging with students. We should just take a moment and remember that what we’re doing here is finding another way to educate students so they can take ownership of their learning.
Information on South Huntington’s Parent University
Information on New York’s Strengthen Teacher Leadership and Effectiveness grants