San Tan Heights K–8 School (AZ) accomplished something unprecedented during the 2021–2022 school year: implementing five new, high-quality curricula all at once. “They’re shifting to knowledge-building instruction as a whole school, all at once, not piecemeal, one subject at a time,” said Lauren Chapalee, director of innovation with Great Minds® Schools. “I don’t know of any other school in the country that has done this. Florence Unified School District #1 has made a huge commitment to student learning,” said Dr. Steven Shadel, director of Great Minds Schools.
In July 2021, Great Minds Schools began partnering with Florence Unified School District #1 to provide all students in San Tan Heights K–8 School access to knowledge-building curricula and aligned teacher professional learning. The school is now using highly rated math, English language arts, science, and history curricula, along with aligned professional development and coaching. Families are enthusiastic about the new approach and revamped school. About 850 students enrolled last year, more than the 550 projected. Like many schools, San Tan Heights K–8 School serves a large number of students with gaps in their foundational knowledge, especially after learning loss related to COVID-19. Great Minds Schools and FUSD expect students to make significant academic gains as a result of the partnership.
- 42.6% Hispanic
- 41.4% White
- 7.7% Black
- 3.4% Two or More Races
- 2.0% American Indian
- 1.9% Asian
- 1.1% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
San Tan Heights School is part of the Florence Unified School District #1 (FUSD), whose strategic plan is committed to evidence-based curriculum and professional learning. FUSD made a bold decision to show what’s possible when teachers use high-quality instructional materials in all content areas, choosing Great Minds Schools as a partner with shared goals. The district expanded knowledge-building curricula to include every grade and subject at San Tan Heights, building on prior years of experience with high-quality curricula. In math, San Tan Heights is implementing the new curriculum Eureka Math2™ after several years of using Eureka Math®. In science, grades K–5 are using PhD Science®, while grades 6–8 are using OpenSciEd™. In English language arts, they’re using Wit & Wisdom®, which had been previously rolled out in some grades, but never schoolwide until now. Fundations® (from Wilson Language Training®) and Geodes® (decodable early readers) are both new for grades K–3. In history, Core Knowledge History and Geography™ is the primary curriculum, supplemented by document-based questioning from the DBQ Project™.
San Tan Heights School Principal Dr. Henry Saylor-Scheetz described the school year, saying
“The growth has been amazing. It has been daunting, to say the least. But we are improving at a rate that is just mind-boggling to me."
Letting students do the work
The biggest instructional shift for teachers has been to give up some control and allow students to do more of the heavy lifting. “Students are discussing and sharing ideas and noticing and wondering and building their understanding. They’re loving it. It’s exciting to see,” said Sydna Zilm, an instructional coach at San Tan Heights School.
Teachers appreciate the increased levels of student engagement. “There’s a silence over the room. They are actively involved in their reading,” said Savrina Diaz, a former kindergarten teacher. “You see students who may not be proficient readers [yet], they can find a key detail for you just from peer readings with their partners.”
Educators welcome the wealth of engaging, hands-on activities. “[Our new science curriculum] is absolutely amazing. It has got to be my favorite,” says Jennifer Moore, grade 4 science teacher. “One student looked at me and she goes, ‘I never dreamed that I’d be learning science like this in fourth grade.’”
Teachers love how students are taking more ownership of their learning. “They’re now taking more of the lead. We’re getting more participation. [We’re] able to really build that community with those Socratic seminars and we all have that background knowledge,” said Jennifer Busby, grade 3 teacher. Added Andrea Parrott, Exceptional Student Services teacher: “I lost track of time, kids were talking and they were collaborating with each other [so much].”
Educators embracing change
Students are not the only ones who are learning. San Tan Heights School educators also have had to change their mindsets and approaches—giving up some control so students can do more of the heavy lifting with rigorous content.
“The curriculum is deep. But you can’t be scared of the depth. The same way you [need] that mind shift in kids, you also need to have that shift in your mindset as a teacher,” advised Diaz.
“I’m old school. I had to really train myself for change,” said Michelle Kays, grade 5 math teacher. “[I had to let the students] do their own thinking and their own learning and [create] their own models and strategies. It’s going to be world changing for them.”
Grade 4 teacher Moore agreed. “I had to work through from that teacher-led classroom [where] you sit in your seat, you’re quiet, you listen to a more student-led classroom where we’re collaborating.”
Student learning has encouraged teacher learning, and vice versa. “Even when they’re not confident yet, the teachers have been willing to try something new. And the students have surprised them, which helps fuel a positive cycle,” Chapalee said. “Teachers say, ‘If my students can do this, I’m willing to take an even bigger risk.’”
Educators receiving extensive support
Support from school leaders, FUSD, and Great Minds Schools has helped teachers grow. All staff engaged in foundational workshops for each curriculum before the start of the school year. Early student release on Wednesdays allows an additional half day of focused professional learning every week. Great Minds partners continually elicit teacher feedback and adjust professional learning plans based on that feedback. For example, they offered school-wide sessions on specific student engagement techniques after teachers requested learning in this area.
Teachers have transferred this professional learning to their classroom practice. Says Kayla Piel, dean of students and athletic director, “I’m going to professional development alongside our teachers. They’re learning new tools of the trade. Then I’m in their classroom a week later doing walk-throughs and we’re seeing those engagement strategies and pieces of the curriculum that have been fine-tuned in professional development being implemented in the classroom. It’s not something we saw before, and it’s great to see.”
It helps that the new curricula have many common elements, such as the Launch-Learn-Land lesson structure, Notice and Wonder discussion starters, Socratic Seminars that foster deep conversations, essential questions, and end-of-module assessments. “The school-wide professional development is much more efficient this way. Sessions support teachers with specific curricula, but they reinforce overarching school-wide goals and can reference common instructional routines,” Chapalee said.
In addition, educators have benefitted from extensive on-site coaching from experts from FUSD and Great Minds Schools. “Now we have a whole team of content experts coming in to engage with the teacher about teaching and learning. I think the progress we have made has come from that walk alongside that Great Minds Schools has been able to do,” says Christine Burnett, assistant principal. Again, the partners have made a mid-course adjustment based on teacher feedback. In the first semester, each content area had a different coach, which sometimes meant teachers weren’t getting enough individual attention. Now each teacher has a primary coach who meets with them regularly, observing classes, co-teaching, and having reflective conversations. “The key has been our willingness to learn together,” said Chapalee.
The educators admit that the new knowledge-building materials and instructional approaches have been challenging—but well worth it. Grade 4 teacher Moore’s advice: “Be kind to yourself. Be flexible. Be open to change.”
San Tan Heights School educators—and their students—are looking forward to what’s next. “Just being able to be a part of this experience and see the transition has been amazingly energizing. This is why we get into education,” said Saylor-Scheetz. “We’ve seen great growth [already]. What is it going to be like in four or five years?” wondered instructional coach Zilm.
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Jenny has over a decade of experience in education policy and research. She has worked with states and districts on the development and implementation of college and career readiness policies, especially around the implementation of rigorous standards and high-quality instructional materials. She has extensive knowledge about K–12 standards, graduation requirements, assessments, and accountability systems nationwide. Additionally, she has conducted research for school districts to address pressing needs in those districts. Jenny received her B.A. in English and education from Bucknell University and her M.Ed. in education policy from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.