Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE -- United States and Louisiana State flags fly outside of the Lafayette Parish School Board offices before a board meeting on Wednesday, July 6, 2016.

The Lafayette Parish School Board agreed Wednesday to early release nearly $4 million in general fund money to pay for new elementary textbooks for the 2019-2020 school year, a move that will springboard the district’s elementary English curriculum into the state’s top ranks. 

The board unanimously approved the motion, agreeing to use $3.989 million to purchase new English language arts, math and science textbooks, workbooks and activity books for the new school year. Board member Dawn Morris was absent for the vote.

Expenditures for elementary English language arts made up the bulk of the spending proposal, constituting $3.1 million of the overall $3.989 million price tag.

The move will elevate the district’s kindergarten through fifth grade English language arts curriculum from a Tier 3 to a Tier 1. A Tier 3 curriculum is the lowest tier in the state’s scoring system and “does not meet non-negotiable criteria.”

Francis Touchet, the Louisiana Department of Education’s southern network leader, said this is a positive move for students and teachers in Lafayette. Touchet and his team provide support services to Lafayette and 36 other school districts in the southern region of the state.

“I think it’ll put their teachers on an equal playing field with other teachers and provide our students with the same opportunities that other students engaging with Tier 1 curriculum they are getting,” he said.

The new curriculum means schools will be switching over from Journeys, the English curriculum the district has used for the past three years, said Irma Trosclair, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Kindergarten through second grade students will transition to Core Knowledge Language Arts, or CKLA, and third through fifth grade students will move to Guidebooks.

Roughly 90 percent of districts in the state are utilizing Guidebooks for third grade through fifth grade education, and many use CKLA for kindergarten through second grade, Touchet said.

Touchet said state education administrators began assigning tiers to curriculum in the 2013-2014 school year to gauge how well materials prepared students for end-of-the-year assessments. Curriculum are scored on a state rubric, with considerations given to material’s rigor and the support materials and resources provided to teachers.

Tier 1 curriculum provide more resources to teachers, helping them find ways to better prepare students and address learning challenges in the classroom, he said.

“It’s one thing to have a student that can do the work, but the key to any type of teaching is you have to be able to scaffold and work with those struggling students to get them on grade level,” Touchet said.

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The new curriculum should allow teachers to better support students with disabilities or those who are performing below grade level, he said.

Trosclair said the Tier 1 materials were introduced to the district’s Transformation Zone elementary schools last year. These schools, categorized as CIR, or comprehensive intervention required, are schools that have had a D or F performance score for two years, Trosclair said.

In 2018, the school district received a $1.2 million grant from the Louisiana Department of Education to provide the Tier 1 curriculum to the CIR schools. Trosclair said the state funds weren’t given out until June, making it difficult for the district to get the new curriculum materials into teachers’ hands before the school year started. 

This put teachers at those schools at a training disadvantage, she said.

Trosclair said the school district aims to have a smoother transition with its Tier 1 districtwide implementation. Staff are already planning teacher training sessions for June and July. She said teachers will also be provided with ongoing professional training during the school year, an element Touchet said his staff will assist with.

Trosclair said implementing a new curriculum is good for students, but coursework is only one element to student success. Having high-quality teachers and high-quality teacher training ensures the material is worked into schools as effectively as possible, Trosclair said.

In a phone call Thursday, Trosclair said she’s already heard positive feedback from school principals who are excited about the announcement. It’s a positive sign, she said, because transitions like this can be difficult.

“Transitioning to a new curriculum is hard, even if we believe it’s better for our children,” she said.

As part of the Tier 1 curriculum implementation, the school district is waiting to hear if it will receive grant dollars from the state again this year. If it does, those funds will be used as a booster for 11 UIR, or urgent intervention required, elementary and middle schools, Trosclair said.

These schools struggle with performance in certain areas. Trosclair specifically referenced performance scores among students with disabilities and using the potential grant funds to provide additional teaching resources to that subgroup during the curriculum implementation.

Touchet said the district should hear by mid-April if they’re being awarded grant dollars and should receive the funds by April 30 if Lafayette is a recipient. He said he thinks Lafayette is a strong candidate for the grant funding.

Follow Katie Gagliano on Twitter, @katie_gagliano.