Back to school changes

The Mercer Island School District has approved a number of curriculum changes for the 2007-2008 term, most notably a reshuffle in the high school and middle school social studies program and the introduction of the state-required culminating project for seniors.

Ambitious students will be happy to hear that a flush of AP humanities courses have been added to the high school curriculum, as well as an honors math class.

“We are offering AP psychology, AP U.S. history and AP English literature,” said Mercer Island High School principal John Harrison. “We are also offering students the opportunity to take honors math for the first time.”

In addition, the senior culminating project — a new state graduation requirement as of this year — will be implemented at MIHS. Most students, who have the choice of a December or May deadline, have already begun work on the project.

“You ask people what they’re doing over the weekend, and a lot of kids will say ‘I’ve got to work on my culminating project,’” said MIHS senior Kirsten Gradel. “A lot of the ideas I’ve heard are really cool.”

High schoolers aren’t the only ones in for change. This year’s seventh graders will be the first at Islander Middle School to take Washington State History. The required course, more commonly known as Pacific Northwest History (PNW), has been moved from 9th grade to 7th grade to “better align with the state Grade Level Expectations,” according to director of curriculum Patti Weber.

Seventh grade teacher Jan Brousseau, an active leader in the district’s K-12 social studies committee, said a lot of thought went into this move. After conducting a comprehensive review of the social studies curriculum last spring, the team agreed to push PNW up to the middle school level.

“This move has been typical with a lot of schools over the last five or six years. Social studies is not part of WASL testing, but what we’re developing at the state level is a classroom-based assessment. And so this move puts us more into alignment,” she said.

The committee has also chosen a new textbook for the PNW class.

“It’s really exciting. Our seventh grade [Language Arts, Social Studies] team has looked at the new books and the new standards,” Brousseau said. “We just think [PNW is] a wonderful fit for 7th graders. It’s just so real for them. We’re encouraging the students to go out and explore the areas they’re learning about in school.”

Meanwhile, 9th grade PNW will be taught for two more years at MIHS for those students caught between the curricular change.

Eighth grade history is also in for a makeover. As usual, 8th graders will walk into a U.S. history class on Sept. 4, but this year the focus will be shifted from civics to history.

“In the past, this class has mostly focused on civics — we’re required to cover geography, history, civics and economics — and now it will cover more of the history area,” Brousseau explained.

And what about the younger ones? The Spiderman backpack toting, playground squealing, front-toothless elementary schoolers? Yes, they’re in for change too — perhaps the biggest one.

“We’re introducing a new standards-based report card at all three elementary schools. It’s really a major change. It’s very different from the old system,” said Lakeridge principal Ralph Allen.

The new system has been three years in the making, with district administrators, teachers and parents partaking in the discussion.

“We’ve been preparing intensively for this, starting with committee work and most recently with field testing,” Allen said.

Unlike the report card that K-5 parents have come to know so well — a one through four grading system that covers “inadequate” to “excellent” — the new system focuses more on a child’s ability to meet state standards.

“This is more of a WASL rubric grading system. The old way of doing it, we would say ‘your child consistently performs above everyone.’ But now it’s more about the content kids are studying, and whether they meet grade-level standards in that particular topic,” the principal explained.

But parents shouldn’t be anxious, he added. The district has devoted much time to ensuring a smooth transition and will continue to do so.

Over the next couple of years, teachers and principals will meet in work groups to discuss instructional strategies that meet the needs of all students. A survey will also be conducted in June for input on the new system.

“This change will dominate the work we do together as a professional learning community,” Allen assured.

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