Edmonds School Board adopts new Units of Study reading curriculum

Edmonds School District elementary instructional coaches Abigail Espegard (front left), Joey Mertel (front right), Education Manager JoAnn Todd (back left) and Executive Director of Student Learning Rob Baumgartner (back right) brief the new school board about the Units of Study in Reading curriculum.

After months of discussion and mixed community feedback, the Edmonds School Board of Directors voted Tuesday night to adopt new Units of Study in Reading curriculum for K-6 grade classrooms.

At its Jan. 21 business meeting, the board voted 4-1 — with Director Nancy Katims voting against — to adopt the curriculum, which teaches students to read through classroom workshops. The curriculum is part of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project co-founded in 1981 by educator Lucy Calkins.

Prior to the vote, the board held a second reading for the proposed curriculum, which was piloted in classrooms across the district at the start of the 2019-20 school year. According to district staff, Edmonds has consistently been outperformed by surrounding school districts with similar demographics, like Seattle and Everett. Executive Director for Student Learning Rob Baumgartner said based on positive feedback district staff has received about the curriculum, it is the district’s best solution to address students struggling with reading in the area.

“I think (the feedback) really speaks to the urgency with which we’ve taken on this adoption process,” he said. “It shows not only the support, but also the passion that we have within our district for supporting our struggling learners.”

Under the new curriculum, K-6 classrooms would be equipped with libraries that include a variety of different genres and reading levels for students during designated reading time. District staff is projecting it would cost $500,000 to stock classrooms with reading materials from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Baumgartner also said there would be an ongoing cost to update the classroom libraries and provide libraries to new teachers.

Additionally, district staff is projecting a cost of $661,000 to provide ongoing professional development training over the next two and a half years to teach faculty and staff how to implement the curriculum in classrooms. According to Baumgarter, the cost would cover the need to hire substitute teachers so that teachers could attend training during school days.

Since it was piloted, the curriculum has drawn criticism from some parents and teachers who said it would not meet the needs of all of the district’s students, particularly English-language learning (ELL) students. When asked about support for ELL students, elementary instructional coach Abigail Espegard said the curriculum includes an accompanying lesson and suggested supporting material for ELL students. 

“It’s very carefully laid out,” she said.

During the discussion, Director Katims said the curriculum did not focus enough on phonics and asked how it would be integrated into classrooms to be taught alongside Benchmark Literacy. In response, elementary instructional coach Joey Mertel said the Benchmark curriculum would be used to teach shared reading and that it was adopted in 2010 with the intention that it would be taught alongside a guided-reading curriculum, like Units of Study.

“When we think about how we would blend Benchmark and the Units of Study, they actually blend quite nicely,” she said.

Katims said she was concerned about time constraints and that it could potentially take days to help struggling readers catch up to their peers. According to the curriculum, each workshop is 45 minutes with 25-30 minutes of independent reading and the rest of the time is designated for instruction and shared reading. During independent reading time, teachers would be able to provide additional help to struggling readers. Citing increasing class sizes, Katims said it could potentially take days to help all of the struggling students.

“These are the kids we want to make sure they’re not being lost while they’re sitting there for 30 minutes maybe not being able to productively use that independent reading time,” she said.

In response to Katims’ concerns that students would be sitting idle while waiting for a teacher to help them, education manager JoAnn Todd said that students would have access to other resources to study phonics instruction like phonics cards, books they have already read or pattern books.

“It is not the vision that kids are sitting idle, but that they have books that they can access,” she said.

Todd also pointed out the decision to adopt Units of Study was in response to feedback she received from teachers requesting a new reading curriculum. According to Todd, teachers who were purchasing their own supplies to teach reading said they would prefer that the district supply them with the resources needed. She also said teachers were concerned about inconsistency when teaching reading, because lessons differed each year.

“What sparked the initiation of all this was literally being stopped by teachers to say we’ve got to do something about the reading curriculum,” she said.

Before the discussion, teachers spoke during the meeting’s public comments portion to show support for the curriculum. Cedar Valley Community School kindergarten teacher Heather Lippert said she had “great success” piloting the curriculum in her class this year. Lippert said her students who piloted the program became enthusiastic about reading and would walk down the halls reading anything they could.

“There is magic to the lessons in the curriculum,” she said. “Each day there is a new adventure that pulls my kids in.”

Leah Laatz, also a Cedar Valley teacher, said she was in favor of the curriculum, which she has used in the past as a supplemental resource when teaching reading. According to Laatz, Units of Study is more rigorous than previous curriculums and includes more analytical work and sophisticated reading. Writing about the stories they have read during the workshops has also helped students who had previously struggled with reading, she added.

“The Units of Study encourage reading discussions as a class in small reading groups and with reading partners every day,” she said. “As a result, students are able to transfer this work to their own personal reading in reading groups and literature circles.”

However, Katims said she has still heard from teachers who are not in favor of the new curriculum. According to feedback she has received, 33% of teachers who piloted the curriculum did not approve of its adoption. Though she praised the district staff’s efforts, Katims said she stands with those teachers in opposition.

“There’s a lot of discomfort out there between our teachers — more so than usual — because of the adoption process was run,” she said. 

Voting for the curriculum’s adoption, Director Anne McMurray said she favors a curriculum that offered across-the-board consistency when teaching students to read. McMurray, who was first elected in 2005, said she sought to join the board to advocate for more consistent instruction districtwide — so students did not have to rely on a lottery system to be placed into a better class than other students.

“I understand and I have heard loud and clear that this adoption is not everything for everyone, but it gets us farther down the road and it does provide a consistent model,” she said.

Edmonds resident Tom Nicholson said he was concerned about the $800,000 in trigger pay that has been paid to Edmonds School District teachers whose classroom are overcrowded.

In other business, the board heard public comments from a resident concerned about $800,000 the district has paid teachers since the start of the 2019-20 school year on trigger pay for teachers with overcrowded classrooms. Edmonds resident Tom Nicholson – who has been an active critic of district spending in recent years — said the payouts to teachers is a result of poor district management and asked the board to reassess the spending.

“This type of situation is really what’s undermining the confidence of homeowners in my neighborhood and throughout the district,” he said.

In other business, the board unanimously voted to waive uncollected fines and fees in the amount of $27,083.18. The write-off is an accumulation of prior-year fees of inactive students who are 21 years or older. After making efforts to reach the former students and their families, the remaining balance is written off.

Also during the Jan. 21 meeting, the board unanimously voted to select the Edmonds-based firm SpeeWest Construction as the general contractor for the Oak Heights Elementary Replacement Project. Per the contract, a purchase order was awarded in the amount of $115,710 for the project’s conceptual design phase for consulting services. 

The board also unanimously voted to award Integrus Architecture as the architect for the Oak Heights Elementary School Replacement and approval of a contract for conceptual design phase services. Their proposed fee for this phase is $ 147,000.

Most of the Oak Heights Replacement Project would be funded by the 2020 bond, and costs incurred prior to approval of the bond measure would be funded from the existing balance in the Capital Projects Fund.

–Story and photos by Cody Sexton

  1. When I see such large amounts of money for a curriculum I always wonder how much parental involvement is encouraged. The parents who sit down every day for 10 minutes reading to and with their children will help their children immensely. Visiting the library is free and will be so helpful. Edmonds Library even has a used book section where parents can find interesting books for their children.
    Parents seem to be encouraged to let the school do everything. Help parents understand how valuable they are in their kids’ learning starting at a very young age.

  2. As a retired 3rd grade teacher, I’ve seen many a program come and go. I spent hundreds of dollars and hours of time supplementing materials in an effort to reach all my students, in every subject. I’m glad to see that there will be consistency throughout the district. However, especially for the younger grades, I’m concerned about the lack of a strong, research proven phonics program to accompany this new program. It is very important that it is explicitly taught, especially to students struggling to read-those with learning disabilities as well as ESL students.
    Finally paying teachers for the hard work they do is not the problem. Class size is a huge factor. Please remember that every child requires the teacher’s attention, some more than others. The administrative requirements for each student takes a lot of time. If you give me 5 more students, you are adding at least 10 more hours of work per quarter. That time is on my own time, far beyond the school day. When I was teaching, that extra time was never less than 10 hours a week. The levy is a lot. But we are growing and our kids have many needs. If you don’t believe me, go volunteer and you’ll change your mind!

  3. Hmmm… I’m far from rich, and I buy new cars. The last one lasted me 21 years, the one before died after 300,000 tough winter miles in the ski business. My latest is probably the last car I’ll own, given my age. It’s a hybrid plug-in getting up to 80 mpg in local usage – and license taxes are horrendous. It’s also the safest car I’ve ever owned, with all the safety doo-dads.

    Not everyone who buys a new car is rich; some buy them for safety, reliability, and because of environmental issues.

  4. ” Executive Director for Student Learning Rob Baumgartner said based on positive feedback district staff has received about the curriculum, it is the district’s best solution to address students struggling with reading in the area”

    This statement does not make sense, 33% of the teachers who piloted this program did not approve. That is a D+. Seems kind of like hearing what you want to hear.

    Also, the pilot program seems to have been quite short. It was started at the beginning of this school year and according to the link in this article from November the people who are making this decision were already proposing this program a month and half into the pilot program. It seems like it would be more practical to let the pilot program run at least half the year before proposing the change, especially given the $1.1 million it will cost.

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