By Dr. Lisa DiGaudio
I’ve been a teacher at various grade levels and a charter school founding principal, but at heart I’m a curriculum person. I have a passion for developing an appropriately differentiated, inclusive curriculum to help every student become successful, especially students coming from the most challenging circumstances.
At New Dawn Charter High School, we are a transfer school―meaning our kids are over-age and under-credited for their respective grade levels. Our students have either dropped out or are in-school truants. They’re not on track to graduate with their 9th-grade peers and they’re considered the most at-risk and difficult to engage in the learning process. That’s the context for what we do and what we believe.
We have a foundational belief that schools should be responsible for ensuring students’ growth in ways that make sense. For our vulnerable student populations, no matter their perceived limitations, we have a mission to help all students achieve success and find a pathway in college or full-time work that best suits them.
I was founding principal of our first school in Brooklyn eight years ago, but have since returned to my true passion as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for both schools. In a setup like ours―with two campuses working in parallel, a non-traditional schedule (which I’ll describe shortly), a broad range of needs to meet, and a maximum need for differentiation―a strong curriculum is the backbone of our approach and gives us the ability to adapt and react in all the necessary ways, day-to-day.
With this in mind, I’ve organized four important learning from our successes with curriculum and instruction that are relevant to leaders in any school setting. While our schools may appear unique to you―and you wouldn’t be wrong―the reality is we are driven by a commitment to equity, opportunity, and a whole child education, just like so many educators in so many diverse schools and districts across the country. Further, since so many of our students have had long-term negative experiences with school, and because all of them are coming to us after having been removed from their previous school, we are engaged with them in a process of “re-learning” how to do their education.
Even though we have some learners who are 20+ years of age, we are nonetheless teaching some processes and behaviors the same way you might expect in elementary years. The upside of this is that we’re building everything from the ground up with intentionality, and we don’t take for granted any of the “basics” of what we do in the school. Here are four of the most important things I’ve learned about designing equitable curriculum practices:
1) Our goals need to be based on achieving real-world success
We have students graduating at 19, 20, or even 21 or 22 years old, so we’re uniquely positioned to think about how their schooling is preparing them for the workforce. We have alternating tracks, in which students spend one week in the classroom followed by one week at an internship, and we provide job training to make sure they’re prepared for success in that internship. This starts small with such lessons as the importance of eye contact (a new perspective for many students who have come to understand eye contact as precipitating a “throw down” or confrontation) to interviews and resume building.
On the academic schedule, this means we have two weeks each month to cover coursework rather than four, which necessitates a tight curriculum process. To make sure we are standards-aligned, covering the necessary content all students need to get their credits toward a diploma, and are keeping our curriculum aligned across our two campuses, we use Chalk’s curriculum mapping and analytics platform. This is also supportive given that we have rolling enrollment, with students coming in at any time of the year and any point in their academic journey, so we can be confident that we have access to functional curriculum maps to get every learner where they need to be. Through this combined process, students’ academic needs toward a diploma and career-ready skills are all covered successfully.
2) Curriculum must be designed to educate the whole child
In addition to academics and internship experience, social-emotional learning (SEL) is the equal and essential third piece of our curriculum approach. Our students are in advisories each semester centered on SEL, and this isn’t just sitting around and talking―it’s real curriculum. This helps students in numerous different ways. It keeps them engaged in school―a huge factor, as we’ve found that students who engage with us at least 35% of the time will graduate―and helps them relate better to their peers inside and outside the school. Many of our students are gang members, so in teaching these lessons we need to overcome some significant challenges, but we’ve found success. With all of the difficulties and traumas students are facing, including new ones brought about by the pandemic, SEL is important for every school.
3) Let’s expand our definition of differentiation
Not only are we mindful of differentiating for our students’ diverse academic needs and accounting for where they fall on the over-aged/under-credited spectrum, but another area that we consider part of our differentiation practices is attendance. Our kids are under a lot of pressure in their home lives. Especially during the pandemic, we have many students driving for food delivery services such as DoorDash to help with finances, which might go until late at night before they get home and perhaps complete their homework at 2 or 3 a.m. If that student shows up in school the next day we consider it a “win,” and we address the student who’s in front of us that day. If they were up all night, they might fall asleep in class, so we know we’re going to plan ahead for tomorrow and live to succeed another day. This is another benefit made possible by our curriculum maps, because we can always feel confident in where we are and where we need to go next, without fear of getting off track because a particular day didn’t go as planned.
4) Assessment should reflect curriculum & inform instruction
New York has canceled the Regents Exams (state standardized tests) this year, yet we’ll know where all our students stand because we’re consistently assessing―not to rank or grade them, but to inform us about the standards we’re missing and the instruction we need to deliver. This is another area in which Chalk is so beneficial, through its real-time data on student progress. We can see at any moment where we might have gaps in standards coverage for a student or group of students, and then teachers can get together and use Planboard to plan and deliver the right lessons. In short, the goal of assessment must be to inform instruction, and in doing this we are much better at getting every student where they need to be more quickly.
We have many students who graduate ahead of schedule and many others who take longer than expected, but with our differentiated practices and an attitude of “sticking with it,” we know we can help them all succeed. One of the joys of the job is the transformation we get to see in kids that go far beyond what you might observe in a “typical” setting. This spring, we’ll be graduating one such student who came to us already three years behind, and has now been with us for four years. It didn’t always look promising, but now she’s on track to graduate and the change has been remarkable. This is our mission in action, and if we can do it, I’m confident many other leaders can achieve the same.
Dr. Lisa DiGaudio is the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for New Dawn Charter Schools. She was the founding principal at New Dawn Charter High School and holds a PhD in leadership, policy and change from Walden University.