Curriculum Case Study: From ‘Focus’ to ‘Exceptional,’ How a Delaware School Transformed Student Literacy in Just 3 Years

Claymont Elementary School second-graders participate in partner reading. (Photo: Knowledge Matters Campaign)

This is the final of three pieces from a Knowledge Matters tour of school districts in Delaware, in recognition of the state’s new initiative – called DE Delivers – to encourage adoption of high quality instructional materials in its 19 districts. In this piece, Claymont Elementary School Principal Tamara Grimes Stewart describes the Wilmington school’s journey since its 2017 rollout of the Bookworms Reading & Writing curriculum. Part of the Brandywine School District, Claymont saw English Language Arts proficiency scores rise 21 percent in just three years after the new curriculum was implemented.Follow the rest of our series and previous curriculum case studies here.

Claymont Elementary School was constructed in 1969 as a high school. It played a pivotal role in our nation’s fight to create fair and equitable schools for all students, being one of two northern Delaware schools named in the landmark Brown v. The Board of Education court order that declared school segregation unconstitutional.

Today, Claymont is a diverse, 800-student K-5 school serving a predominately low-income population. We house Spanish Immersion, the Brandywine Specialized Autism Program, and a gifted and talented program for grades four through eight, in addition to serving a large multilingual learner population.

Claymont’s journey of transformation through the implementation of high-quality instructional materials occurred just as we were being identified by the Delaware Department of Education as an underperforming school. In 2015, just 41 percent of our students were proficient in English Language Arts and only 39 percent were proficient in math. Based on these scores, we became a state “Focus School,” which required developing a plan together with the state for academic improvement.

Claymont was fortunate that, as this was going on in the background, our district office introduced Bookworms as our response to intervention curriculum for reading. Using Bookworms, we were able to see our students who receive small-group and intensive interventions make progress much more quickly than they had in the past. We attribute this to the systematic focus on foundational skills contained in the program.

“By targeting decoding skills, we can get to fluency much faster,” says Kristen Cook, Brandywine School District’s reading specialist.

We had heard about Seaford’s success using Bookworms with all students in the class. We visited several other districts and asked our teachers to pilot the materials for one week — and everyone became excited to move forward with the curriculum. Rather than implementing at certain grade levels with certain teachers, we chose to dive all-in and bring the curriculum on across the board. We knew there would be growing pains, and we wanted to go through those together as a team. Everyone knew a change was needed — and everyone wanted to be part of the solution.

Our first priority was to map out our professional development plan, and it was extensive. We received support from our district office and coaches at the University of Delaware. We targeted professional development for specific grade levels and specific content. We differentiated our faculty meetings to address areas of concern revealed by the data, which was gathered both from walkthroughs and benchmark assessments. Coaches supported individual teacher needs. And for educators to share resources and strategies that were working, we devoted staff meeting time and made it the crux of our professional learning communities, in which our teachers regularly gather in small groups to collaborate and learn from each other.

What we’ve learned is that despite Bookworms being a relatively structured (some even say “scripted”) curriculum, it actually provides a framework that enables teachers to deliver powerful, student-centered instruction in their classrooms. One structure, for example, is a focus on a high volume of reading for all students. This is supported by a curated library of 275 whole-length, content-rich texts that students read and study across their K-5 experience. What is not to like about scripting that looks like that? What I find interesting is that our teachers don’t “feel the script.” Instead, they talk about how kids love the books.

“One of the parts that I love is hearing kids walking around talking about books,” fifth-grade teacher Brian Horne told us. “I have been teaching for over 20 years and I never remember [that].”

And it’s not just the students. Kindergarten teacher Meredith Allen said that she, herself, gets excited by every book she reads with her students. It might sound to some ears like an oxymoron: that a very structured curriculum is actually driving a much greater love of reading. But that’s our truth.

Just one year later during the 2018 and 2019 school year, based on the Department of Education criteria, Claymont Elementary was identified as an “Exceptional School.” English Language Arts proficiency scores after implementing Bookworms increased over three years to 62 percent from 41 percent. Proficiency scores in math (we adoptedEureka Math around the same time) rose to 60 percent from 39 percent over the same period.

“It’s been an amazing transformation,” fourth-grade teacher Jodi Engleman told our school tour visitors.

Whether with Bookworms or Eureka Math, we attribute our success to the following:

  • Implementing the curriculum with full fidelity, monitored via walkthroughs and observations
  • Buy-in by staff and teacher commitment to implementing the curriculum, all of which came as a result of staff seeing positive changes early on
  • Staff professional development focused on areas of need that are data-driven and teacher-directed
  • Coaches and district office staff providing professional development and individual support to staff as needed
  • Professional learning community meetings focused on the curriculum including instruction, data, and strengths/weaknesses
  • Ensuring we stayed student-focused. From our data to student’s reactions to the curriculum, we wanted to ensure our students were engaged

Change does not happen overnight. The work we do as educators is not easy, but it is necessary. In each student there is greatness, and it is the job of the educator to find it. As we continue this journey, we are excited about the future for our students — and we remain committed to the process of change so that we can help students achieve their greatness.

“If you, as a district leader, are looking at the data and it’s not producing results, change it,” says Lavina Jones-Davis, Brandywine School District’s director of elementary education.

We invite our fellow educators to embrace the change that high-quality curriculum and curriculum-based professional learning can produce. You’ll be glad you did.

Tamara Grimes Stewart is principal of Claymont Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware.

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