Curriculum review integrates faith, academics for all schools

By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – Representatives from all the schools in the diocese spent Feb. 7-8 at Cabot Lodge in Jackson talking about Catholic identity and picking through their curricula as well as samples from other sources in hopes of making Catholic education in the Diocese of Jackson stronger than ever. Teachers from every age group and subject participated in the review in Jackson the first week of February with the goal of introducing a consistent curriculum over the course of the next couple of quarters in schools.
The schools started a curriculum review several years ago in collaboration with Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE). That review tackled two subjects at a time. When it was finished, some teachers said they had a hard time tracking down all the documents they needed. Karla Luke, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools and Stephanie Brown, assistant principal at Madison St. Anthony School and coordinator for school improvement for the diocese, began working on a website to house not only the documents, but also resources related to the new curriculum. That’s when they discovered some of their work was already in need of review.
“At the time we began the process we were using a different set of standards. Now that the college and career readiness standards have been adopted and we changed our standardized test assessment from Stanford to ACT Aspire, it was necessary to review all the standards that we were currently teaching in the classroom,” said Luke, “We need to make sure that we were still hitting the standards and benchmarks prescribed by the national standards, college and career readiness standards, ACT Aspire, performance-level descriptors and also making sure that our Catholic identity is infused within each of the standards we are responsible for teaching,” added Luke.
Around the same time as the ACE review, the Department of Faith formation reviewed and updated the Catechist Companion, the curriculum for religious education in the diocese. This sparked an opportunity to reinforce Catholic identity in every class.
“The goal of what we are doing now is taking all the standards that are out there – because there are national standards, state standards, various subject-specific standards, but also across-subjects literacy standards, technology standards, everything kind of in its own place,” explained Brown. “The goal of these few days and our entire process is to take a look at everything that’s out there and determine what is the best, what is going to give our children the best education possible while remaining developmentally appropriate and also finding a way to integrate our Catholic faith into it. There are lots of different puzzle pieces that have to fit together so the first step in the process is just laying everything out there. We have created an online site that has all of our source documents together so you can look at all the standards as well as the Catechist Companion and our ACT Aspire materials. Then you can see across the board what is consistent, what is most important to us and what to we feel is going to most benefit our students as we move forward.
“The idea at the end of this process is to have a clear and concise set of standards that every teacher, student and parent understands so that when their student finishes third-grade science, they will see everything that every third-grader in the diocese should be able to do by the end of the year. In addition to being academically comparable to or better than everything else out there, it will also have a strain of our Catholic identity woven into that so it’s not just religion in one spot and science standards in another. It will show how we teach those subjects together through our Catholic faith,” said Brown.
Another layer in this process is looking at how all the grade levels can support one another in an integrated curriculum. Teachers sometimes refer to this as vertical alignment. “We want to make sure that we are all on the same page teaching the same things and we are setting priority standards. We are also looking at vertical alignment so we can see what students need to know before they move to the next grade so we are not duplicating things anywhere and we are not leaving any gaps anywhere,” said Karla McHan, 10th and 11th grade social studies and theology teacher at Vicksburg Catholic School. She said bringing teachers from every class and grade together helps facilitate real-world discussions. “We need to make sure what we do on paper is matching what we are doing in the classroom. Sometimes what we do looks really good on paper and it doesn’t really roll over well into the classroom so we need to come back and revisit that,” said McHan.
Luke and Brown will continue to work on the review documents produced during the workshop. Those who participated will present them in their own schools and get feedback from their fellow teachers. The team hopes to begin working with the schools on new standards in the fall. Brown said by then, they will have lots of resources and support for teachers as the plan rolls out.
This is far from the last time teachers and administrators will go through a review, but they believe they are better positioned to be proactive in the future. “The tricky part in education is that everything is constantly changing. With ACE, we had it all done and literally the next year, college and career readiness standards came out. Curriculum is always going to be an ongoing process so we need to get ourselves in a position where we are a little bit ahead of the curve so we are able to see what’s coming and evolve and adapt as we go. This year will be our jumping-off point, but this will be an ongoing process,” said Brown.

JACKSON – Stephanie Brown, coordinator for school improvement, speaks with Stephanie Shaver of Southaven Sacred Heart School. Kirk Graham, Social Studies teacher from Natchez Cathedral Unit School, is also pictured. (Photos by Maureen Smith)