LaKendra Butler is the founder and school leader of STRIVE Collegiate Academy, a diverse charter middle school for Grades 5–8 in Nashville, Tennessee. As an early adopter of Wit & Wisdom, Butler shares her experience opening a school while simultaneously introducing a new English curriculum to STRIVE’s teachers, parents, and students.
In 2015, STRIVE Collegiate Academy welcomed its inaugural class of 115 fifth-grade students. Committed to providing a rigorous education, school leaders searched for an ELA program that was adaptable, highly engaging, and built from the Common Core State Standards. They turned to Great Minds. Now in their second year with the new curriculum, STRIVE students have built knowledge across multiple content areas and made impressive strides in reading and writing. School leader LaKendra Butler describes the process for selecting and piloting Wit & Wisdom and the exciting changes she’s seeing in her school.
A New Curriculum For a New Day
STRIVE’s founders knew they wanted to focus on providing teachers with the right resources and support to help students succeed. According to Butler, “We recognized that developing every piece of material covered throughout the year can be overwhelming and can often be an unsustainable exercise. We wanted our teachers to be supported and empowered to focus more on the rigor of what they were teaching, and on engaging with their students.”
School administrators began with research. They looked at a range of English curricula and they developed criteria for selecting the right one. Butler explains, “We had first-year teachers on our staff and wanted to provide a resource that would integrate with our plans for the school year. We also wanted a curriculum that didn’t require a significant ramp-up period for our teachers. The program had to be approachable, easy to understand, and built on the standards.”
Through her previous experience as principal of another school in Dallas, Butler was already familiar with the Wheatley Portfolio, a series of ELA curriculum maps created by Great Minds as part of Wit & Wisdom’s evolution. “I saw the Wheatley Portfolio in action before and wanted to bring a similar program to our school,” she shares. In 2015, STRIVE became an early adopter of Wit & Wisdom.
Preparing for Success
After piloting and deciding to fully adopt the new curriculum, STRIVE participated in a series of professional development workshops. Working with their dedicated team of instructional coaches, teachers closely examined Wit & Wisdom’s pedagogy and instructional strategies. “We felt completely supported along the way,” says Butler. “There were many occasions where our Wit & Wisdom coaches were in the classroom working with us. They were equally invested in our success.” Her team found this coaching aspect of professional development to be most beneficial. “Having an opportunity to process the module before teaching it — alongside someone who had an even greater lens — made the learning process much more impactful. We knew this curriculum would get our students to where they needed to be,” Butler explains.
STRIVE Academy teacher Cristina DeScisciolo noted, “I recently overheard some of my students from last year (now sixth-graders) telling my current students that they’re ‘going to love’ the upcoming novel. While that certainly makes me proud as a teacher, I know I couldn’t have done it without this curriculum.”
Impacting Students and Community
Teachers’ collaborative study of the curriculum paid off within the first year of implementation. Butler notes, “I believed the underlying purpose of Wit & Wisdom was to ensure that students become great readers, which in turn would inform their writing. Our students have tremendously grown in their reading and ability to write fluently.” This growth was evident when students participated in the state interim assessment. Students felt prepared for the reading and writing portion of the assessment. “They jumped right in,” says Butler. “They were able to read the texts and write coherently about what they read.”
Ian, a fifth-grade student at STRIVE, shared, “I’m now reading books that aren’t two levels under my reading level, and I feel better prepared for taking the tests.”
As students engaged with the rigorous content of Wit & Wisdom, they became more confident writers and readers. This confidence impacted the school community. Butler observed an immediate shift in how teachers, parents, and students thought about English. “The books we’re reading now are different from what we read in the fourth grade at my old school,” shares Alvin, another STRIVE Academy student. “Instead of reading short stories in text books, we’re reading chapter books. We’re learning new things that I don’t think I would have ever learned before. Sometimes the books are challenging — but I like it! It’s really exciting.”
Reflecting on what she describes as “a very successful year,” Butler continues to share, “This curriculum is responsible for how our students view ELA now. You can feel the curriculum’s impact. Our students are beginning to understand that this is what English looks like in college; therefore, this is what it should look like in the fifth grade.”
Butler is excited to see students’ success continue in 2017. “We were able to commit to providing a rigorous education,” she observes. “Teachers and parents are satisfied with the curriculum and the impact it has had on our students.”
DeScisciolo adds, “My students (and myself as a first-year teacher) really benefited from Wit & Wisdom. The fascinating and relevant texts for my students to dive into, as well as thoughtful assignments and activities, have been wonderful to include in my classroom community.”
As more area schools continue to adopt Wit & Wisdom, Butler anticipates being able to build more relationships with other Great Minds’ educators. “I’m looking forward to collaborating with other great schools who are adopting and teaching the curriculum.”