St. Francisville — While the debate over Common Core continues to bubble across Louisiana, the new approach to education already is part of the daily routine in Tonya Aaron’s kindergarten class at Bains Lower Elementary School.
On this day, 5-year-olds, without any fanfare, are studying the number 7 in umpteen different ways as part of the sweeping changes in how math, English and writing are taught statewide.
Students sprinkle seven beans from a cup to study different combinations and how they all add up to seven.
They watch videos from YouTube with number lessons from “Sesame Street.”
And hands shoot up when Aaron asks her students to identify how many dots are on a sheet with various configurations.
“When I went to kindergarten, we were not getting that far into what the numbers meant,” she said during a class break.
Other teachers, principals and parents are saying the same thing: Common Core is radically changing the way schools teach children, regardless of ongoing debate in the courts, the Legislature and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“Here, students have never experienced anything else,” said Raquel Square, principal of the school for students from pre-K through first grade.
“So they are embracing it,” she said. “We are not seeing any frustration.”
“My children normally do math right after recess,” she said. “It used to be when they came in, ‘Oh, man.’ Now it is, ‘Whoo, math.’ I have them moving. It is engaging. It seems like a game to them.
“They want to participate and ask, ‘When is math; what are we going to do with math today?’ ” said Aaron, a 10-year veteran of the classroom.
The West Feliciana Parish school system is one of the top-rated systems in the state, and its pre-K programs were well underway and praised years before most of the state embraced early childhood education.
Carla Jackson, who teaches third grade at Bains Elementary School, is the 2015 state teacher of the year.
Jean Woodside, who teaches fourth grade at Bains, is a former teacher of the year.
Hollis Milton, the system’s superintendent, is regarded as one of the state’s top young superintendents.
Bains Lower has about 450 students from pre-K through first grade. Bains Elementary, which serves students in grades two through five, has about 600 children.
The district, which is about 30 miles north of Baton Rouge, has never been in the forefront of Common Core criticism.
But the overhaul still causes anxiety, even among parents and educators who generally praise the new rules.
“This is frustrating for parents because we weren’t taught this way,” said Caroline Alberstadt, a mostly pro-Common Core mother of children in kindergarten, fourth and seventh grades.
“We were given a page full of multiplication problems and a word problem at the end,” Alberstadt said.
“And it is hard; it is hard,” she added. “It is a whole new way of math.”
Jessica Ladraa, a mother of three, said the tougher standards make sense but that parts are tricky.
“To me, it is simple math,” Ladraa said. “The logic behind it is not simple.”
Abby Cochran, principal of Bains Elementary School, said she has encountered only limited resistance to the new ways of teaching.
“We will get a parent saying, ‘I am going to teach them my way,’ which is the old way, which is fine,” she said. “It is one of the ways. But they are limiting their children, limiting what they can learn,” if they take that attitude.
“Parents are having to relearn if they want to help with homework, so that is freaking them out,” she said. “But we have had very little kickback with the curriculum we have chosen and Common Core.”
Wendy Richardson, who teaches fourth grade at Bains Elementary, said she has repeatedly pleaded with parents to give students time with the new ways that math is taught, including during last year’s final trial run for the new standards.
“I have begged them to hang on because we are so confident this is right,” said Richardson, who has taught math for 14 years.
“And by the end of the year, unbelievable what the children could do,” she said.
Richardson said 12 students earned perfect scores on a key end-of-year math exam. Another 49 received advanced scores.
Overall, the results were the best ever.
“Common Core is what it means when we are dividing and multiplying, what they are actually doing,” Richardson said.
“They get it. It makes sense,” she said. “And because it makes sense to them, when I present them a problem, they are telling me, ‘I know what we are going to do.’ ”
Last week, Richardson’s students were reviewing a lesson in rounding numbers.
“In the past, they could round and they could get the correct answer,” she said. “But it didn’t have meaning to them,” she said. “Now they have internalized it. It has meaning for them.”
Cochran has seen it.
“They are talking about all the different ways to do that one problem and showing you all the different ways to do that one problem,” she said.
Jackson and others said Common Core also has led to classroomwide dialogue unlike anything seen in the past, part of what backers say are changes that will improve critical-thinking skills.
“Before, we might pose a question, call on a kid, they might answer, the teacher might comment on that and then we move on,” she said.
“Now, the teacher steps back and the kids are having the discussion. The kids are the ones saying, ‘Well, I agree with you on that’ but want to add on or ‘I don’t feel that way,’ ” Jackson said.
Woodside said her fourth-graders recently had a free-flowing discussion about the book “The Hundred Dresses.”
“They are making all kinds of inferences from what they are reading, and that is very new, very different for them,” she said.
“You would see that at a higher level, but these kids are doing it extremely well,” Woodside said. “They will say things I have never thought about.”
School leaders say the debate over Common Core, which has gone on for more than a year in Louisiana, is hard to ignore.
Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to drop the standards in favor of new ones developed by state leaders. Critics contend the standards are flawed, the rollout was botched and federal officials are intruding on local school issues.
Common Core tests are planned for March, but opponents are appealing an August court ruling that paved the way for the exams.
Earlier this year, it was unclear what, if any, standardized tests would be given next spring.
“Do you know how we felt?” Jackson asked.
Milton noted that Common Core has been unfolding for three years. “Keep calm; teach on,” he said he told teachers.
Richardson made a similar point.
“It is like watering a garden,” she said. “It is going to grow. Just got to give it time.”
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/