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Catawba County children are finally getting answers to the age-old question of "why" they must learn certain concepts in school.
Newton-Conover City Schools leaders say they hope those answers help children prepare to compete for higher-education and job opportunities around the world.
School curriculums are changing across North Carolina as the state implements a new "common core of standards," a structure for lessons that often focus on the retention of eight to 10 main concepts or skills in a subject.
"In the past, it's been that 'these are the requirements that we're learning this year, so we're going to cover it for assessment,'" said Dr. David Stegall, associate superintendent for Newton-Conover City Schools. "Instead, we're now learning why it's something we need to learn. It means something to the students now. It's not just the concept, it's why it matters. That's the big shift."
That shift began in 2006 when the N.C. Board of Education adopted a new mission that every student graduate from high school ready to compete for post-secondary education and global work opportunities, according to information from the state Department of Public Instruction.
In 2008, the state board created the Accountability and Curriculum Reform Effort (ACRE) to redefine the state's standard course of study.
In 2010, North Carolina was one of 12 state recipients of federal Race to the Top grants that garnered $400 million for the state's public school system. With the grant, the state adopted federally required common core curriculums for math and English. North Carolina and its school systems were allowed to establish new curriculums for other subjects, too.
Curriculum changes must begin in all grades by fall 2012, a provision of the ACRE program. Newton-Conover City Schools started the process this school year in kindergarten through second grade. Stegall said teachers participated in extensive professional development training over the summer to transition from the previous course of study to the new curriculum.
"K-2 is not tested at the state level with standardized tests, so we felt we could go ahead and get started," Stegall said. "It gave us a chance to train 25 percent of the staff ahead of time instead of all at once. We're seeing that the students are really enjoying that they're learning the 'why' of these concepts.
"In math, instead of plugging in a formula, they're taught why there's a certain formula to begin with. It comes to the root of the basic things and problem-solving strategies that adults will use in all walks of life."
In writing, for example, students will learn that diagramming sentences can be important for published authors because subject-verb agreement is crucial to an interesting story, Stegall said.
The big picture
Curriculum changes will affect lesson plans in all subjects.
William Shakespeare's works will now be taught in all English and language arts classes, including American literature courses.
In science, more concepts will be taught at each grade level, beginning in kindergarten, but those concepts will be taught with less depth.
Math students will be expected to learn counting and cardinal numbers, operations and algebraic thinking, base ten numbers, measurements and data, and geometry in grades kindergarten through five. In grades six through eight, students will be expected to learn ratios and proportions, the number system, expressions and equations, statistics and probability and more geometry.
In social studies classes, sixth-graders will study South America and Europe, world geography, history and culture up to the year 1450.
Seventh-graders will study Africa, Asia and Australia between 1400 and 1800. Eighth-graders will study North Carolina and the United States.
Concepts will be tied together between subjects, too. Students studying the Bill of Rights, for example, will learn the document's history and also examine it from a writing perspective.
Stegall presented an overview of the curriculum changes Monday night to the Newton-Conover City Schools Board of Education. Board Chairman Scott Loudermelt said the changes will involve extensive learning for teachers and students.
"Over time, it's going to be a positive thing for students," Loudermelt said Tuesday. "At its base, what's happening with the curriculum is making lessons more applicable to the kids' every-day lives and integrating the subjects more. The purpose is to make it where kids actually use the information, where it's not just written memory."
n In other business at Monday's school board meeting, Conover School Principal Betsy Rosenbalm presented a school improvement plan, which the board of education approved.
The school â€“ which is classified as a feeder school that serves students ages 3-22 with disabilities â€“ has increased its end-of-grade testing proficiency from 28 percent in the 2008-09 school year to 58.1 percent last year.
Rosenbalm's improvement presentation included ongoing technology upgrades with more devices such as interactive remotes for students. The plan also included safety and mobility improvements to the school facility, more timely staff development, added character and health education materials to teach about topics such as puberty, and attendance improvements.
"Our students are a little more fragile, health-wise, so our students get sick and our teachers get sick," Rosenbalm said.
School board members Betty Coulter and Loudermelt praised Conover School's work and improvements that have already been made.
"You guys do wonderful work," Coulter said.
n Newton-Conover City Schools Superintendent Dr. Barry Redmond said work continues to progress on construction of the district's new middle school off County Home Road in Conover.
Redmond said the project is still on schedule, with possible completion as early as February, and within budget, which was set at $20.8 million.
"There's lots to order with equipment and furnishings," Redmond said.
School board and system facilities committee member Jim Stockner asked Redmond if key school officials had toured the building and suggested that middle school administrators and other leaders visit the site.