November 13. 2013 11:42PM

Manchester opts for own standards

New Hampshire Union Leader

Teacher Amy Villeneuve reads the book "It's Mine!" to her first-grade class at Gossler Park Elementary School, one of six schools in the city to develop a new reading curriculum with the help of a reading specialist. (DAVE SOLOMON/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — The 19 first-graders gathered for reading class with teacher Amy Villeneuve at Gossler Park Elementary School were excited to have visitors and anxious for the reading to begin, but first they had to answer some questions.

"What kind of stories have we been reading?" Villeneuve asked.

"Narratives," the class replied.

"And what are the three parts of a narrative?"

It took some coaching, but the class soon established that every narrative has to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

"What are some of the words we can use to show beginning, middle and end," Villeneuve continued.

Hands shot up, with students providing the answers: first, next, then and finally.

And so Villeneuve began to read the story, titled "It's Mine," about a pond full of frogs who told a visiting toad to get lost, only to find themselves swamped in a flood and stuck on a rock, which turned out to be the back of the toad.

They agreed to share the pond.

Afterward, each student had to produce what could be considered a first-grade book report, in which they had to say what happened at the beginning, middle and end of the story. Some used words; some drew pictures; each took a turn presenting to the class.

If you think first grade is too early to start learning the basic structure of a narrative and applying it in your own writing, think again.

"It's not education like it used to be," said Principal Lori Upham, who was observing the class. "They start narrative in kindergarten. It's much more rigorous."

A turn in direction

Gossler is one of six schools in the city that benefited from the work of a reading instruction consultant for two years, in 2008 and 2009, through the America's Choice Literacy Workshop. That effort gave the schools what looked like a headstart on adopting Common Core State Standards in English when the New Hampshire Board of Education decided to recommend the standards in 2010.

That's the direction Manchester teachers thought they'd be taking as recently as last summer, when 54 teachers and administrators worked with an outside consultant on the beginning of curriculum development with Common Core standards in mind.

Then the Board of School Committee put the brakes on that process with a vote on Oct. 16 to develop unique Manchester Academic Standards, using Common Core and other standards, such as the Massachusetts Frameworks and the New Hampshire Grade Level Expectations — in place before Common Core was adopted in both states.

The teachers are adapting to the change in direction, said Upham.

"This school has been a school in need of improvement (under No Child Left Behind), so we've had so many different programs come our way that our teachers are used to having things change on a dime," she said.

The work done over the summer continues to be a part of the city's curriculum planning.

"Our classroom teachers continue to use the draft documents from the summer as we develop our new standards," David Ryan, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, wrote in an email. "As soon as curriculum is revised to help students achieve the Manchester Academic Standards, they will begin with implementation. One constant in this process is the high level to which our teachers teach and professionally approach this difficult task."

Teachers are the key

While some districts in the state jumped on the Common Core standards soon after the 2010 state Board of Education vote, Manchester delayed implementation, leaving principals to their own devices.

"Individual schools, not wanting to fall behind after believing the district would eventually roll out an implementation plan like most other school districts in New Hampshire, began working on them with staff," according to Ryan, who only came on board in September and could not find any written plan for the Common Core standards in Manchester.

In response to the Board of School Committee mandate, the district is now creating standards-writing teams and curriculum-writing teams composed of classroom teachers from different grade levels, overseen by a district standards and curriculum committee.

Manchester is free to develop its own standards, says Heather Gage, chief of staff at the Department of Education and director of the Division of Instruction, but students in designated grades will have to take the Smarter Balanced test in the spring of 2015.

State law requires school districts to administer the standardized test approved by the Department of Education.

"We don't have a waiver process for state law," Gage said.