New Year, New Approach: How Our Academics & Curriculum Meet Scholar Needs

On June 17, 2021 at 5 PM EDT, Democracy Prep will host a webinar about academics and curriculum in our organization. Blake Unger Dvorchik, the Assistant Director of K-12 Curriculum, will lead this session to give insight on Democracy Prep’s approach for the upcoming school year in light of COVID-19 and how we select curriculum. You can RSVP by following this link. In preparation for this webinar, we met up with Blake to ask a few questions about what to expect!

What can people expect during the webinar?

A few different things! The first is how Democracy Prep has settled on the curriculum we have. As well as being standards-aligned, we strongly focus on scholar thinking (what we call the “thinking/participation ratio”) to truly ensure that kids are not only prepared for a test, but that they can speak deeply and coherently about the individual topics they are learning about.

We’ve also started using some outside curriculum not made by DP or network staff. We’ve compiled a list of highly rated curricula and have created working groups where teachers, scholars, and parents all weigh in to share their priorities. Teachers look through the lessons and say, “I think this is the strongest one for these reasons.” By following this process, our curriculum is exciting and culturally relevant because it incorporates the voices of everyone involved: kids, family, teachers, and administrators.

COVID-19 has been really hard. Students and teachers alike have done an incredible job of staying focused and engaged in the virtual classroom. Even so, there’s still a ton of unfinished learning. For example, kids haven’t seen the teaching content first-hand and in-person, or kids saw it and haven’t been able to internalize the information and master it, and this is no fault of their own. A big piece of this webinar will center on a topic that we call learning acceleration. By the end of the 2021-2022 school year, our goal is to get kids back on track, having mastered the majority of their current grade level content while still having supports, time, and space to access the pieces that they missed during the 2020-21 school year.

What are your considerations when thinking about implementing learning acceleration?

Our approach later on may be different, but we’re currently thinking of a few different pieces. The first is that you get kids on grade level by making grade level content accessible to them. Our stance is that kids will receive 85-90% of the current grade level material that they’re expected to have. Therefore, we aren’t going to reteach material to make up an entire year, and we are going to do the vast majority of the current year’s work.

However, we also know that if we don’t provide appropriate supports, kids will have trouble accessing the current grade level material. The first is a tutoring and Response to Intervention program where we create a lot of scaffolding and supports around small group tutoring. The next is having a series of robust data cycles where on a two to three week basis, teachers collect data and amend their teaching to better meet the needs of their kids. The last component is “pre teaching” and “just in time” supports. We will have twelve days a year where instead of teaching on-grade level content, teachers give lessons on prerequisite skills. For example, if we’re doing a math unit on probability, I don’t have to teach kids everything about fractions, so my lesson will focus on how to multiply fractions, rather than focusing on multiplication, division, addition, and subtractions all at once.

Can you elaborate on how Democracy Prep thinks about the student “thinking/participation” ratio?

It comes back to our mission of educating responsible and active citizen-scholars. In order to achieve this mission, we need to be able to think for ourselves, to look at something, form our own opinion, and cite evidence that supports our opinion. Your opinion may be different from my opinion. While there’s not necessarily a right answer, you need to be able to have that opinion and support it with evidence.

More and more, our schooling looks like “I [the teacher] give you a problem, and you as a class work through the problem, find an answer, and from there, we pull out key trends.” So our curriculum is a lot more exploratory and investigatory than the traditional “Teacher talks and students take notes” approach. Our approach encourages students to find answers with strong support, which teaches them how to think critically and analytically.

What else would you like people to know about the work Democracy Prep is doing?

Something I’m very excited about this coming year is balancing kids’ different needs with learning acceleration. One need is mastering on-grade level content. Another need is having all of the scaffolds and access points to get there. The third need is having social-emotional support. This past year and a half has been very challenging for kids because a lot of their time has been spent at home without seeing friends, interacting with teachers, or engaging with other kids in-person. We are making sure there is joy and community in our classes, and we are thinking about all of the different ways we can very intentionally incorporate these components into the school day. We are intentionally setting aside time for social emotional learning during the school day and training teachers on how to do that within lessons.

Want to learn more about Academics and Curriculum at Democracy Prep? Join us for our webinar on Thursday, June 17, 2021 at 5PM EDT. You can RSVP by following this link.

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