Schools racing to top

Published 1:27 am Sunday, December 18, 2011

The competition was fierce with 37 other players on the field. North Carolina lost the first round, but came back in the second round, finishing behind Georgia, narrowly edging out New Jersey and Ohio. In the end, North Carolina walked away with $400 million.
North Carolina placed ninth in the second round of the Race For the Top initiative, a competition between the states that was created by the U.S. Department of Education and funded by President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Of the grant money awarded, the state is allowed to keep 50 percent and the rest is dispensed among its 100 counties. Of that money, $1,128,915 came to Beaufort County Schools, but it comes with strings attached. Strings that, starting next year, will affect every teacher and student in Beaufort County.
Within the education community, significant changes are being made to all aspects of education. There are new state tests, and, by 2014, the goal is have all tests administered online. As of next year, teachers will be evaluated based on a combination of student growth and performance. But the largest change coming beyond what is being taught — a national curriculum will require more rigorous learning in language arts and math — is how it’s being taught.
“Understanding concepts. That’s what’s really going to change in the classroom,” said Christina Harris, Race for the Top staff development coordinator and career and technical education director for Beaufort County Schools.
Rather than having students learn to repeat a process shown to them, the shift in teaching will allow for common application.
“You start with a concept, and then show them how it applies to real life,” said Harris.
Harris brought up an example dealing with the area: the measurement of a two-dimensional surface by using small tiles. Students are asked to arrange the tiles however they like then compare the different shapes that result, discovering the definition of area through practical experience.
“The idea is to show students ‘Where did this come from? What is the purpose?’ before they start doing the problems,” explained Harris. “We are training our teachers to deliver lessons not just as instructors, but as facilitators.”
Harris, along with the new “Common Core” curriculum facilitators, Ashley Padgett and Glenda Moore, are charged with the creation of the master plan that will go into effect for the next school year. Making sure every teacher receives training and creating new “curriculum maps” for teachers’ use are just a small part over their overall task.
“We are responsible for every teacher understanding and knowing what’s going on,” said Harris.
So far, they’re ahead of the game —t he state lags behind Beaufort County in creating curriculum maps with sample units, or lessons, included.
A shift is taking place in the guidance arena of schools, as well. More focus will be placed on integrating curricula with career interests, encouraging students to cluster classes that would prepare them for further study — and to stick to the path they choose. With the help of business partners in the community, more internships will be available.
“We’re going to get more people out in the work force, in different areas,” Harris said. “Then they can see what a real workday would be like in a certain career.”
By far, the most drastic change to the requirements demanded by North Carolina’s acceptance of the Race for the Top grant money is the move toward technology. Eventually, classrooms will go paperless altogether, and as lessons will be more project-focused, students will need to have easy access to a great amount of information. Harris said her teachers are up to the task of mastering wireless learning.
“I really believe our teachers understand why they need to change how they teach,” she said. “They see the value of it for the students.”