Art smart

In this program, artists help prepare children for kindergarten — and their teachers learn, too

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Performance artist Katy Schoetzow uses a mouse puppet to teach children new words such as over, under, across, and through

Teacher Jeanette Samuel stands up before a Head Start class and begins bouncing and chanting a song aloud in a lilting voice, “Can we go OVER it? Yes, we can. Can we go UNDER it? Yes, we can.”

While the children gather around to sing with “Miss Jeanette,” Katy Schoetzow, a performing artist, uses props to transform other parts of the room into an adventure to follow Felix the mouse to a circus. The 3- and 4-year-olds track a hand-drawn map and line up to go around an imaginary lake, under a tower, through trees and across a pond.  

This unique classroom experience is part of the Detroit Wolf Trap program. Twice each week at a Matrix Head Start center in Detroit’s New Center neighborhood, performing artists visit to work with instructors and students. Schoetzow was teaching the children about colors, helping them develop body coordination, and strengthen what Wolf Trap calls positional vocabulary — words like over, under, around and across.

Other teaching artists, as they are called in the program, might also use singing, dancing, drawing, and other art forms to help teachers and parents prepare children for kindergarten.

As Detroit heavily invests in early childhood education and seeks new ways to improve the quality of instruction, this is one program illustrating a path forward. While lots of schools have nonprofit partnerships that bring arts or music to classrooms, this national initiative brings artists to train teachers and collaborates with parents to help in the process of everyday learning.

“This is arts integration, the ability to use dance, visual arts, theater arts, music, take them and make them elemental so we can really start connecting the basics,” said Erika Villarreal Bunce, director of programs for Living Arts, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the interactive arts program. “We use those art forms like Katy did, using drama techniques to connect them to what the children are already doing and push those forward.”

Each year since 2012, about 1,000 Detroiters as young as 3 months have been learning an array of academic and social skills in highly creative classroom environments at this Matrix and three other Head Starts.

While the children are learning, so are the teachers. Schoetzow shows them how to engage the youngsters so they can continue the lessons when she’s not around. On this recent morning, Samuel has shown she has mastered singing aloud as a classroom management technique.

The teachers participate in workshops, consult with Schoetzow and develop a plan for the students, and learn performance arts strategies to enhance instruction.

In addition, the children’s parents can sit in the classroom and attend workshops to learn how to engage their children. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older siblings also come along to learn how to work with the children at home.

In fact, the program has been so effective, Detroiter Karen Hernandez said it’s changed her family’s life. Her 6-year-old son, a shy boy, emerged from his shell when he started the Detroit Wolf Trap program at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center in southwest Detroit. Now, she said, he is a better English and Spanish speaker because of the bilingual program there. And the family is writing stories and songs together.

“It’s connecting us more as a family. We’re not so involved in our phones or the television,” said Hernandez, who also is mother to a newborn. “It’s connecting me more to him and he doesn’t have to feel left out with the new baby. Since we participate in this class together, it’s really connecting us.”

Schoetzow, the teacher artist, says the movements students learn will help prepare them for kindergarten.

“At the end of this school year, we’ll have a lot of kids who are kindergarten ready,” she said. Schoetzow is a musical theater performer and choreographer in Detroit area theaters. All of the teachers in the Wolf Trap program are working artists.

Researchers say the Wolf Trap program works for the 50,000 children it serves each year in 17 states. The program supports the need for children who lack access to arts education resources, especially those from low-income families, children who are English learners, and who have other challenges.

In 2016, the American Institutes for Research released findings from a study it conducted on the program. The study found that children who participated in the first year received the equivalent of 26 extra days of learning.

In the second year, the study found the additional learning amounted to 34 additional days of math learning in school. Among other findings, teachers said using artist techniques especially helped those who were shy, had never been to school or who were speaking another language.

In Detroit, a five-year study from 2012 to 2017 had similar findings after measuring how children progressed in core academics and cognitive growth, and how they developed socially, emotionally, and physically, Bunce said.

“Our study has proven the children who have had a Wolf Trap experience are making significant improvement in comparison to children not having the experience,” she said.

Riley ran a daycare for 25 years before she started teaching Head Start this school year. She said Wolf Trap enhances life in her classroom. She recalls how Schoetzow recently made pretend pizzas with the students. They were very engaged in the shapes of their pizzas.

“Sometimes, our day gets to be a little dry because the kids hear things over and over again,” Riley said. “The arts helps us with the mix, and I can see the advantage for the children. I see them learning and growing from this.”

New tools

Eight things to know about Detroit’s big math and reading curriculum shift

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

The countdown is on: In five months, elementary and middle school teachers in the Detroit district will be teaching from all-new curriculum.

District leaders are scrambling to train teachers and prepare families for the switch to new reading and math teaching materials for grades K-5 in reading and K-8 in math. It’s a massive undertaking, and the first time in years Detroit is changing curriculum at this scale.

The move means that students, including many who are years behind grade level, may struggle with materials more difficult than what they are used to. But the district’s leaders are optimistic about the changes, given that the materials will be replacing a curriculum that was exposed as woefully unaligned to state standards. That meant information the state expects students to know was missing.

Parents, students, and teachers likely have questions about what’s coming. Here’s what we know about the new materials and what we’ll be watching for in the months ahead.

1. What are the new curriculums?

In math, students will now use a curriculum called Eureka Mathematics. Eureka is published by the nonprofit Great Minds. It’s also been known as EngageNY, and is a popular choice designed to align with the Common Core standards.    

In reading, students will use a curriculum known as EL Education K-5 Language Arts. That was published by an organization called Open Up Resources.

Both are open-source, which means they are free and available online. That means teachers and parents can check out a lot of the content for themselves, on the Eureka Math website and  the EL website.

2. Are the materials any good?  

Some think so. The reading curriculum received the highest score ever given to a K-5 English Language Arts curriculum by EdReports, a curriculum grading guide. It also got top scores for usability and its alignment to standards for every elementary grade.

An 18-district study by Mathematica Policy Research found that novice teachers using EL Education’s K–5 Language Arts curriculum and receiving specific training were more likely to focus on asking higher-order thinking questions than other novice teachers.

District leaders are banking on the investment to boost reading scores. The stakes are high because, starting in 2020, third-graders won’t be allowed to advance to the fourth grade if they aren’t reading at grade level. If that policy were in place last year, up to 90 percent of city third-graders would have had to repeat the grade.

Eureka Mathematics is currently the highest scoring math curriculum on EdReports that provides material for grades K-8. (EdReports has faced some criticism from groups like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in the past, and made changes in response.)

The curriculum has also faced criticism from parents frustrated with confusing homework and some educators who say it pushes students too fast.

3. How many districts use these materials?

Because both curriculums are open-source — and so don’t require district contracts to use — it’s hard to know the exact number of districts or schools that use them. But the creators of EL Education’s literacy curriculum say it is in use in 44 states and D.C., and Eureka Math claims to be the most widely used math curriculum in the country.

Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, where Detroit district Superintendent Nikolai Vitti served as superintendent until last year, used both, and he credits them with helping to raise the district’s standing on the national exam.

In Detroit, the curriculums were chosen by a committee of 113 Detroit educators, 88 of them teachers. The educators on the committee spent weeks reviewing and comparing options, then voted on their favorites.

4. What will they cost?

Both the English and math curriculums are open source, which means they are free and available online, but the district opted to pay for books and teacher training. Those will cost $7.1 million in total, with $5.3 million of that devoted to the reading curriculum.

Teachers will be paid for time spent training over the summer.

5. How does the English curriculum work?

For one, it provides a script for teachers to use, with suggestions on what to say during instruction.

“It’s not scripted because it assumes teachers can’t do it without a script,” said Jessica Sliwerski, chief academic engagement officer at Open Up Resources. “Rather, it’s meant to be a thinking teachers curriculum,” with prompts to help teachers get students engaged.

Brandy Walker, a fifth-grade teacher at the Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School, said she likes the script. “It tells you exactly what to do,” she said. “I can’t wait for the fall to start using the English curriculum, and see how test scores are going to go up.”

Whether other teachers feel the same way may determine the reception to the curriculum in schools across the city.

6. What about the content of the English lessons?

For students in grades K-2, there’s a daily one-hour lesson paired with a one-hour “lab” and a one-hour block of phonics instruction.

For students in upper elementary grades who are reading independently, the new English curriculum focuses on multicultural novels.

“There are all kinds of culturally relevant stories and informational texts as well,” said Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a school board member.

7. What does the math curriculum look like?

The content will vary widely from kindergarten to eighth grade. But in general, the Eureka curriculum is known for diving deep on fewer topics in each grade and for requiring students to show that they can solve problems in different ways.

8. How will these new materials work for students who are learning English or just struggling with the content?

Both curriculums include “scaffolding” support — specific methods teachers can use to adjust their instruction.

Eureka Mathematics incorporates notes in the margins of teacher texts for each lesson explaining how to help specific learners, including English language learners, students with disabilities, students performing above grade level, and students performing below grade level.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear your questions. Fill out this form to ask a question related to the new curriculum and we will do our best to answer it in an upcoming story.

Summer school

Detroit district adding grades K-2 to summer school to help youngest students boost reading scores

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

For the first time in years, the Detroit district summer school program will start in kindergarten.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti recommended younger school children, in grades kindergarten to second grade, be included in the summer school program at the academic subcommittee meeting Monday. The move is meant to help prepare young students for a new state law hanging over the district. The law will prevent third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level from advancing to fourth grade starting in 2020.

This is a daunting prospect in a district where last year about 10 percent of Detroit third-graders passed the state’s annual English Language Arts exam. Across the state, only 44 percent of third-graders passed the test.

“There will be a deep focus on literacy at the primary level which is also new, to get as many students ready as possible before the third-grade retention law that’s coming,” Vitti said.

With the law looming, many schools and districts across the state are scrambling to find ways to make sure their youngest students are learning to read. In the main Detroit district, efforts have included changing the curriculum for K-8 students and creating new reading programs.

The summer school announcement is the latest effort to prepare students for the upcoming law. Vitti even considered holding summer school for only K-3, but reconsidered after hearing community feedback.

“Listening to principals and teachers, there was a need to serve as many kids as possible to make sure they… are not falling behind,” Vitti said of the district’s choice to continue offering programs for older grades. For older grades, students are able to make up credit they failed to attain during the school year.

This summer marks the first time in years that middle-schoolers who are in danger of being held back will be able to repeat classes they failed in hopes of advancing to the next grade.

Vitti also recommended bus transportation for K-8 students and bus passes for high school students, a focus on literacy in grades K-5, and a focus on course recovery for grades 6-12. He plans to use assistant principals to run the program.

Using assistant principals has two benefits. It frees up principals to focus on filling teacher vacancies and it helps prepare the assistants to take on more duties to become principals themselves in the future.

“Because now principals are working 12 months and they are focusing on recruiting,” Vitti said, assistant principals will be expected to run the programs.

“It’ll allow them to get used to managing the building and dealing with issues of students and parents” to prepare them for principal positions, Vitti said.

Summer school will start on June 26 and run through July 26. Students will attend for four hours daily, Monday through Thursday.

This proposal will be voted on by the full school board next month.

Read through the proposals to the district’s summer school program below:

  • Strategic focus on K-5 students for skills development in literacy and 6-12 grade students in course recovery.
  • Students will attend their neighborhood assigned school, except for schools having major maintenance or being used for teacher training. Students from these schools will be given an opportunity to attend the next closest school.
  • Transportation will be provided based on corner stops for K-8 grade students. High school students will be provided bus passes.
  • The district and schools will combine Title I money, grants, such as the carryover grant from 21st Century, and private funding from community partners to support the summer program. Recreational centers will also be open.
  • Assistant principals will run summer school as principals recruit staff. Schools will be assigned clerical staff for enrollment, customer service, and payroll.