‘Historic changes’ in the works for 2014

With the New Year comes a tweaked curriculum, a fresh-faced school district trustee and an innovative fiber-optic hookup that promises to make students’ lives easier.

Big changes are in store this year for Butte public schools.

Chief among them is the new Montana Common Core, a state-adopted set of standards, or benchmarks. The Montana Board of Public Education adopted the new academic standards, which begin in 2014. Only local school districts decide curriculum.

Although controversial in some camps, the purpose, proponents say, is to better prepare K-12 students for college and careers. Opponents argue that the standards are inadequate and unclear.

“I think there’s this misconception that this is a complete overhaul,” said Jim O’Neill, the curriculum director for Butte public schools, “(but) two-thirds of the curriculum will stay intact.”

So what’s new?

Six main “shifts” kick in spring semester in interdisciplinary reading, vocabulary and writing requirements and other upgrades in English, language arts, history, social studies, science and math. Even math students will be required to write coherently about formulas, for example.

All sophomore reading lists will include 70 percent nonfiction tomes in history classes. Classics, especially in English classes, remain in the mix.

“That’s not to say we’re throwing out all the classic literature,” O’Neill said, adding that the nonfiction requirements will follow students in each subject.

New math programs in grades K-8, a K-6 writing curriculum and increased emphasis on vocabulary in several subjects aim to guide students in using critical, higher-level thinking skills.

Superintendent Judy Jonart called the changes “historic.” Districts are required to have the standards in place by the time the 2014-15 school year rolls around, but Butte schools will roll out changes this semester.

“We have a ton going on to meet the rigor of Common Core,” O’Neill said. “As a parent, I’m thrilled that there’s this emphasis. I think it’s great for kids; it prepares kids for the real world. It’s common sense.”

High-speed learning

A superfast fiber-optic system coincides with the Common Core plan in 2014. The district will flip the switch on a new Internet hookup that will better connect the Butte High School hub to all the other district schools.

It’s part of a first-of-its kind private-public partnership to better connect Butte. The public library, other government buildings and even private businesses will eventually join the loop, which is the first of its kind in Montana.

Jonart has said a planned “virtual desktop” system the school plans to implement on the loop will revolutionize how students learn. Students in grades 3 through 8 and juniors will take a new Smarter Balance Assessment test starting in March on virtual desktop computers that will make test-taking easier, for example.

Crews are busy installing patch panels, outlets and other necessities in the schools to get the system online by the end of the month.

“It’s moving great,” said Jim Kambich, president of the Montana Economic Revitalization and Development Institute leading the project. “We’re really excited about it. Were at the five-yard line, and we’re going in.”

New leadership

The Butte school board has a new trustee in Hilary Risser, a math professor at Montana Tech. She takes over for former trustee Vikki O’Brien, who resigned in November because she’s moving to Oregon.

Risser hopes to collaborate with the local business community on education projects like robotics teams and has experience designing Common Core programs.

“You have to go after those dollars and find others who are passionate,” Risser said. “The board serves as that overarching bridge between the community and the schools and making sure that those voices are heard.”

More time

The district has extend the daily schedule by seven minutes. That means that school will start earlier in the day, at 8:20 a.m. instead of 8:27 a.m. for most students.

“Time is a wonderful gift for both teachers and students,” Jonart said. “There is no doubt that the extra seven minutes will be well utilized.”

Contact Birkenbuel at Renata.Birkenbuel@mtstandard.com or 406-496-5512.

Education Reporter who also covers features at The Montana Standard, I am a Cascade-Ulm-Great Falls native. Originally a sports writer, I wrote for the Missoulian and the Great Falls Tribune. I freelanced for The Seattle Times and other NW publications.

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