Fort Mill School District adopts K-12 Common Core standards

dthackham@fortmilltimes.comAugust 19, 2013 

— Before local students begin their first day of class this month, the Fort Mill School District has already taken necessary steps to adapt K-12 classrooms to a nation-wide set of standards that are expected to create educational unity across the country.

Common Core standards have already been in place for Fort Mill classrooms from kindergarten to second grade since 2012, but the 2013-14 school year will introduce Common Core to all grades in the district. The standards are designed to allow students to “dig deeper” into content, in order to apply it to real-life scenarios, according to Kelly McKinney, FMSD’s media and communications officer.

South Carolina adopted the standards in July 2010 and expects to see full implementation by 2014. Common Core is not a federal initiative, but has gained support in 45 states across America.

“There’s a lot of transient folks around and the standards used to be so different,” McKinney said. “The objective was to try and get a common standard across the country. This levels the playing field.”

Instead of teaching young children that four quarters make up a dollar, for example, the standards push for teachers to encourage students to explore their own ways to reach the same goal, according to Assistant Superintendent Curriculum and Human Resources Marty McGinn.

“Common Core is just one part of preparing students for the 21st century,” McGinn said. “It’s not changing what we teach, but how we teach.”

South Carolina state standards were “an inch deep and a mile wide,” according to first-grade teacher Kim Coolidge from Pleasant Knoll Elementary. She feels that teaching with Common Core gives a teacher full autonomy over what the particular group of students need most. Many South Carolina classrooms have at least a few students who come from other states in the Union.

“The biggest shift we’re seeing is that so much can be taught from experience,” she said. “Kids are all coming to the classroom with different experiences and we want to integrate those experiences. If you’re learning about habitats, you don’t go to the zoo at the end, you go at the beginning.”

Through pre-assessment, classroom time and one-on-one attention, teachers like Coolidge can pinpoint their classes’ strengths and weaknesses, determine what the standard is for the particular grade and work on problem areas more effectively.

“It’s being able to give us a road map of what they should come to us knowing, what we can teach them and where they’re going next,” she said.

With new changes comes new technology for the school district. Rick Warner, director of instructional technology, says FMSD will be adding almost 4,000 new smart devices to classrooms, including approximately 1,600 iPads and 2,400 Chromebooks. Each school has the option to determine the ratio of how much of each technology they need. Younger classrooms, Warner says, have lessons that lend themselves to using a touchscreen interface, while high school students can easily create multimedia projects through school laptops.

“It’s virtually impossible to ignore that technology component,” he said, “as we move forward to providing those outcomes we’re expected to provide for 21st century learners.”

As Common Core heads into full K-12 implementation, teachers like Naomi Elkin, an eighth-grade math teacher with Fort Mill Middle, will adjust their styles to accommodate new learning techniques. She says there will be a new digital math program in middle school called “digits,” which coincides with a physical textbook. This way, students can access their homework in class, on a computer and at home.

“Digits” helps students learn through video instruction, which Elkin believes is a good way for parents to help stay involved in their child’s education.

“I think one of the biggest things we hear is that parents don’t know how to help because they don’t know how it was done in class,” she said. “It’s very beneficial for them to use this.”

Middle school math teachers would now have the flexibility to offer online homework for those who struggle with completing problems in a physical workbook.

“Textbooks were all traditional, all procedural knowledge,” Elkin said. “This is conceptual and will really make a big impact.”

Students should see differences in language arts, as well. Instead of focusing solely on the theme of a Shakespearean play, Common Core promises to incorporate several pieces of non-fiction and literature, to help students see connections between geography, politics and history.

“It’s what good teaching always should have been,” McGinn said. “And now we’re putting that in a set of standards that makes it clear for everyone. It’s a lot deeper and more relevant.”

By 2014-2015, the Fort Mill School District and South Carolina will end use of the PASS student aptitude test in favor of the Common Core-inspired “Smarter Balanced” exam at the end of each school year.

“Fort Mill’s a very transient place, that’s what we have on a yearly basis,” Coolidge said. “What we’re preparing is for students to be able to compete in a global economy.”

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