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Tensions flare in Bigfork over proposed school math curriculum

Daily Inter Lake | April 22, 2022 12:00 AM

Concerned parents and community members criticized members of the Bigfork School Board at a fiery special meeting on Monday for not having enough parent input into the district’s curriculum choices.

The board’s curriculum committee met to speak with elementary school administrators and staff to discuss their newly proposed math curriculum: Bridges.

Parent Carrie Wyatt said she believes there wasn't adequate notice for the meeting and that it feels like the board doesn’t want the public to be involved.

“It’s not that I don’t trust (the school) but I’m curious too. There’s been a lot things where it feels like we as the public, we’re kind of the nuisance to these meetings, it’s very obvious with some of the responses that we have when we make a statement or ask a question and you have to understand how it makes us feel when we’re not getting notified of special board meetings,” Wyatt said.

It was decided at their monthly meeting on Wednesday to call a special meeting, but the time and date was not solidified until later so Trustee Ben Woods could confirm his availability. The board gave the required 48-hour notice by posting it on their website.

Wyatt told the trustees that she has repeatedly asked for more communication about future board meetings and gave an email list as an example of a way to achieve that.

Trustee Julie Kreiman responded to criticisms of the meeting’s short notice by saying the committee wanted to meet sooner than later in order to make a quick decision so the curriculum could be ordered and arrive in time for teachers to become familiar with it. The Bridges curriculum includes a lot of “manipulatives,” or hands-on learning materials. She said they are concerned about how national supply chain issues could affect a timely arrival.

By far the biggest concern from public commenters was that the board was not including their input into curriculum choices. This echoes recent issues heard in school boards across the country, where parents and community members have felt underrepresented in decisions made by public schools. These hot-button issues include COVID-19 safety protocols like required masking, mention of gender and LGBTQ inclusion and Critical Race Theory, or CRT.

Wyatt said she is concerned about CRT being included in the new math curriculum.

“You have to understand when you hear of a curriculum change you have to know it’s going to raise some attentives … Well, let’s just go there, there’s a lot of political unrest right now and division. Like some of the board members, they wanted to know because of the same reasons, let’s just talk about it— look at what happened in Florida and I want to make sure those things are not happening here,” Wyatt said.

Wyatt is referring to recent news about the Florida education department rejecting 54 mathematics textbooks for its K-12 curriculum, citing reasons spanning the inclusion of CRT to Common Core learning concepts— the names of the rejected books were not included. CRT refers to a decades-old movement among legal scholars and civil rights activists to thoroughly examine the interplay between racial justice and law.

Wyatt accused third-grade teacher Jill Morley of bringing up CRT when talking about Bridges. But, Morley was referencing “critical thinking.”

“I know what you said, you clarified that, ‘critical thinking, not critical race theory,’ that’s what you clarified so we knew that, but you were just assuming we all were thinking it was CRT,” Wyatt said. Morley denied this.

Woods asked the committee to hold the meeting so he could better understand what was in the proposed curriculum. He agreed with public commenters that he was concerned about the content in the curriculum containing “social justice” rhetoric.

“Well I asked for this to be tabled, not out of any mistrust in any of the educators at all, but out of interest and because of the national conversation that’s going on because there are school districts in our state that are implementing mathematics that have social justice warrior, gender-bender stuff in it, it’s happening right here in Montana and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Here again, I wouldn’t think our school would be implementing those kinds of things, but because people are interested, I just wanted to give a more informed response.”

He said he was referencing statements made by Billings School Board candidate Chad Nelson, who has alleged that his district’s new math curriculum “stresses political hot buttons and propaganda.” Echoing concerns from parents across the state and country about CRT. The Montana Free Press reported in an article from early March that school officials, teachers and state education associations have repeatedly said that CRT is not taught in any Montana public schools.

The elementary school’s administration and staff voiced support for their proposed curriculum during the confrontational meeting. In her letter asking the school board to approve the curriculum, Elementary School Principal Brenda Clarke said Bridges is a “rigorous PK-5 math curriculum developed by the nonprofit Math Learning Center and has received EdReports’ highest reviews in math programs, is researched based and correlates with academic standards.” It will cost around $41,000 for the district to purchase.

“Currently, teachers use a variety of resources for math instruction which is non-consistent between grade levels. Because we have experienced something similar five years ago in reading and found success with Wonders curriculum and professional development, we believe our students will greatly benefit from adopting this new math curriculum,” Clarke said in her letter.

Public commenter Dennis Nelson was concerned about how Bridges holds up when compared to other curriculums from other districts who have better math scores and emphasized the price of the current proposal, asking if there were any cheaper alternatives.

Clarke said the curriculum is comparable in price to other curricula of the same standard. She and Morley mentioned the school has been using a mostly free math curriculum the past several years called Eureka, which they said might be contributing to the school’s low performance in math when compared to neighboring districts.

“Teachers have been using a variety of sources, like we said earlier we’d like to have a consistent foundation between the grade levels so we have common language and all of those things as kids grew and grew. So, we haven’t had one particular program in math yet that we’ve adopted … We’ve been using Eureka for the past few years but we feel like it’s not getting us anywhere, it’s not consistent and most programs are around the same price,” Clarke said.

Nelson said he didn’t understand why administrators and teachers didn’t look closer to home for solutions that would better match Bigfork.

Elementary school staff and administration said they examined many different curriculums to find the right fit. They said it would be impractical to look at every single curriculum as in-depth as they did with Bridges and that it’s taken the majority of this school year to land on this choice. When they decided to delve into Bridges, they found a school in Bozeman that uses it and went down to shadow their math teachers, ask questions and observe the curriculum in real-time.

Morley said they looked at Big Ideas, the curriculum Whitefish Schools uses, in addition to many other programs that didn’t appeal to them as much as Bridges. She said many other programs didn’t have an “intervention component,” which will narrow down specific areas a student is struggling with in order to help them perform at a benchmark level. She said the reasons their team liked Bridges is that it’s a hands-on program, teaches flexibility with numbers and that it “really focuses on the eight math practices.”

Morley said staff and administration talked to other teachers they know at neighboring school districts who all had varying opinions on their current curriculum. She said Kalispell Public Schools use Bridges Intervention but something different for their main program.

It’s hard to find a “one size fits all” curriculum, Morley said, and one thing she appreciates about Bigfork Elementary is their willingness to let teachers interpret the curriculum in the best way possible for their students.

“Here’s your curriculum, but we want you to put your spin on it, put your personality into it and make it fun for the kids, it’s just the art of teaching,” Morley said.

Sandry noted towards the beginning of the meeting that public comment is usually not allowed at special meetings because they are reserved for discussion between board members, administration and staff. This special meeting was an exception, with active conversation between all parties. He said they also normally do not have special meetings concerning curriculum changes and that they largely trust administrators and staff to make choices with student’s best interest in mind.

“Typically we wouldn’t be assembled in this room talking about curriculum. We hire administrators who we entrust with that, we have curriculum folk who select curriculum … there’s all sorts of facets of the curriculum across K-12 that this board will never see. So, we don’t micromanage the staff and the public doesn’t. The public elects board members who hire administrators to do their job,” Sandry said.

Wyatt, Nelson and other public commenters expressed concern about Sandry’s comments regarding how the district’s curriculum is decided. When they protested with statements about the public not having a say, Kreiman told them they are always welcome to express their concerns at the regularly scheduled monthly meeting.

The special meeting ended after about an hour of public comment. The Bigfork School Board’s next meeting is on May 11.