Teachers eager to implement adopted science curriculum

November 1, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

Steve Rasmussen

The mad scientists have returned to their classrooms and some are completing observations of crickets, pill bugs and other creatures and plant life.

“Kids don’t just learn science, they do science,” said Joanne Griesemer, a curriculum specialist for the Issaquah School District.

Griesemer was referring to the district’s new science curriculum and said she has been happily busy over the past few months helping implement that curriculum.

During the past spring and summer, the Issaquah Schools Foundation, in partnership with the local PTSA, put on various fundraisers and took in roughly $438,000 toward replacing the district’s kindergarten through fifth-grade science materials. The fundraisers included having students dressed as mad scientists soliciting donations at various locations.

District officials pledged to match the foundation’s efforts with $700,000. The end result was the purchase of $1.1 million in new science materials. That includes everything from textbooks and workbooks to models, measuring instruments and so on. Every elementary school in the district has gotten at least some of those items.

“I am so proud of our community’s support of the new science curriculum,” Superintendent Steve Rasmussen said. “World innovation is not slowing down just because state funding for public education is. We need to prepare our students to be competitive right now, and our community stepped up to that challenge.”

A committee of teachers, school administrators and parents helped select the new curriculum. According to Griesemer and others, the materials focus on three distinct areas or domains of scientific inquiry: life or biology; physical sciences; and earth and space sciences. Students will tackle each topic in three ways: learning a certain system, making scientific inquiries and studying practical applications of scientific concepts. The domains carry over from year to year.

For example, in kindergarten, students learn the basics of how a plant grows. By the time they reach fourth grade, students are building their own miniature ecosystems, complete with plants, small fish and insects.

“You can see how ideas develop throughout their education, how the ideas get more complex,” Griesemer said.

Students recently were at work creating the already mentioned ecosystems in the classroom of teacher Becky Rappin at Grand Ridge Elementary School.

“The best gauge for me is my students,” Rappin said regarding the success, so far, of the new science program. “And they are very excited for the new curriculum.”

As of late October, Griesemer said the district had instituted the new curriculum at each of its elementary schools, but new materials still were arriving and teacher training still was continuing at special sessions in a portable classroom at Clark Elementary School.

When all new items are in the schools, some 680 boxes of fresh materials will have been delivered to the classrooms of approximately 450 district teachers. But that’s not the end of the travels for plenty of those materials.

In order to keep costs down, Griesemer said different sections of different domains would be taught at various schools on a rotating basis. For example, teachers will send the materials now being used at Grand Ridge to study ecosystems off to a different school later this year. And, of course, Grand Ridge will receive materials about other topics now being used at other schools.

Griesemer said this is the first time that Issaquah schools have used a rotating curriculum, at least on this large a scale. She said plenty of coordination will be needed.

“It’s a little like managing a circus,” she said.

Besides the physical movement of materials from one building to another, Griesemer and others also are working to ensure teachers are as familiar with the materials as possible. Curriculum suppliers and publishing sales reps provide that training along with district staff members. Still, Rappin said Grand Ridge teachers took on the ecosystem challenge with no specific training regarding the materials. She said this particular curriculum did not introduce a domain unfamiliar to teachers, so with in-building meetings, instructors were able to decide how to handle the new materials.

Why was a new science curriculum needed and why now? Griesemer said the answer goes back to the state adoption of new science standards in 2009. Issaquah officials had a new science curriculum on their adoption list, but the state’s action meant it had to happen more quickly. However, one major hurdle jumped in the way of the new curriculum, namely the slicing of $1.4 million in state funding from the budget at the mid-point of the last school year.

With that reduction, school administrators said the district could no longer afford to implement an entire new curriculum. They might have been able to go ahead with putting only the life science domain in place. That was when the ISF and the PTSA stepped up to the plate.

How do teachers feel about the new standards? Are they appropriate and helpful? Rappin said no set of standards is ever perfect.

“One good thing is one band, one grade level band, leads to another,” she said. “One year builds on previous years.”

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or tcorrigan@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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