In Delaware, How a District ‘Started Slow to Go Fast’ on a New Math Curriculum

The move to high-quality instructional materials in elementary mathematics made all the difference when the pandemic hit

In Danielle Ciamaricone’s third grade class at Brick Mill Elementary School in Middletown, Delaware, Knowledge Matters Executive Director Barbara Davidson (right) listens as students share strategies for solving a division problem. Photo (Courtesy of Appoquinimink School District)

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This is the second in a series of pieces from a Knowledge Matters Campaign tour of school districts in Delaware that have adopted high-quality mathematics curricula. Appoquinimink School District in Middletown, Delaware is four years into its adoption of Bridges, a comprehensive PK-5 mathematics curriculum that focuses on understanding concepts, proficiency with key skills, and complex problem solving. In this case study, Gina Robinson, the district’s director of early learning, and Rebecca Feathers, director of elementary curriculum, give a behind-the-scenes look at their district’s journey. Follow the rest of our series and previous curriculum case studies here.

The Appoquinimink School District is a rapidly growing district located in Middletown, Delaware. The district has expanded by nearly 45% — to more than 12,000 students from 9,000 10 years ago. This growth in student population also meant that there were more students with more diverse needs than ever before. 

Providing an equitable education for all of our students is what prompted our search for high-quality instructional materials that teachers didn’t have to cobble together themselves. In the past, while we had created learning maps for each unit of study, teachers were still responsible for identifying materials and resources to teach that unit. They were now asking for more curricular support to be able to adequately and optimally educate all students in the district.

A recent visit by the Knowledge Matters School Tour to celebrate our implementation of HQIM in elementary mathematics provided us with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on everything that came together to make our journey a success.

“Teachers writing their own lesson plans from start to finish was a lot of work,” said Jessica Spence, a special education specialist in the district. “It took a lot of time and energy, and we still felt like we were failing students. So burnout for teachers was much higher than versus when we have a resource that has the framework for us and we can really concentrate on giving kids access across the board.”

Instructional leadership has been central to our learning journey. From the very beginning, our math coordinator, Charlie Webb, recognized the importance of involving teachers in the curriculum selection process. She formed a committee consisting of five or six teachers in every grade, who selected two programs to pilot. Teachers didn’t like the first one but loved Bridges, a highly rated, comprehensive, PK-5 mathematics curriculum from The Math Learning Center that utilizes direct instruction, structured investigation and open exploration. Teachers are the ones who selected Bridges, and their collaboration in implementing it is what has been most notable about our experience.  

Bridges represents a dramatically different way for students to learn and for teachers to teach mathematics.

“I think there was a big learning curve between how we learned as children, how we were teaching prior, and the new curriculum,” instructional coach Lori Sebastian said. “Change is scary. Charlie’s good leadership — in making sure all teachers knew this wasn’t just a program that we darted and said, ‘We don’t like what we’re doing, we’ll do something different’; That there has been so much research, piloting, and teacher involvement was key. When you build that background, teacher buy-in is always going to be better.”

One of the most important things Charlie did was to insist we “start slow to go fast”. She knew that moving to a new curriculum was going to be a challenge. Her plan broke the learning down into manageable chunks. That first summer’s professional development, for example, largely focused on the first unit, increasing teachers’ confidence about starting the school year off successfully. School leaders participated in the training as well, so they had a clear understanding of the curriculum’s components and could support the staff. We are blessed to have great instructional coaches, but we believe our administrators need to be equally well versed in the curriculum so they can coach as well. They need to know what they should be hearing and seeing when they go into classrooms.

Throughout year one of implementation, teachers were given time to unpack each unit right before the unit was going to be taught. This was done during professional development days and in professional learning communities. Each school utilized its math lead teacher as a resource. Having someone in the building that could answer questions, model lessons and troubleshoot was key to our success that first year.  

Moving into year two, teachers were ready to dive deeper into the materials and lessons. Charlie shifted the focus to job-embedded professional learning. One of the authors of the Bridges program partnered with the district to assist with this professional learning. Schools focused on lesson studies where teams would co-plan the lessons during PLCs, execute the lesson in a classroom, and return to the PLC to debrief. We encouraged teachers to observe each other teaching. We do a lot of lesson study, which has been extremely valuable and has created a culture of collaboration that has been really important.

“We had so many opportunities to collaborate together to strengthen our knowledge of Bridges,” Brandi Luloffl, math content chair at Townsend Elementary School, shared with the visiting Knowledge Matters team. “We did unit get-togethers, digging into units together, looking at them one unit at a time, so teachers weren’t too overwhelmed with, ‘Here is an entire curriculum; just go with it.’ We were just chunking; and doing it together, playing the games, acting out the lessons — so we really felt in the moment what it was going to be like [to implement the curriculum]. These opportunities with teachers across the district built us together stronger.”

In addition to professional learning for teachers and administrators, math nights were implemented throughout the district where families were invited into schools and given an opportunity to engage with the math. As a result, parents began to feel more comfortable with what — and how — math was being learned in our classrooms.

We took a short break from professional development during the pandemic, during which we were ever so grateful to have a high-quality curriculum already in place, but knew we still had more learning to do. The current focus of our professional development, made possible in part by a state-supported Reimagining Professional Learning Grant, is to support inclusive classrooms and provide equitable access to grade-level/core curriculum in math classes for all students. The grant makes it possible for our instructional coaches to work with Pia Hansen, director of professional development at The Math Learning Center, who has become an integral part of our professional learning journey in effective mathematics instruction. 

Our educators shared a lot with our Knowledge Matters Campaign visitors about the confidence and mathematical “risk-taking” we’re now seeing in our classrooms, as a result of our implementation of Bridges. The instructional leadership demonstrated by Charlie Webb, our coaches, our external partners, and most of all our teachers has been what has made this possible.

Gina Robinson is director of early learning for Appoquinimink School District in Middletown, Delaware.

Rebecca Feathers is director of elementary curriculum for Appoquinimink School District.

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