Private schools wrestle with new Common Core standards

Seventh- and eighth-graders take a test in their choir schola class earlier this month at John Paul the Great Academy in Lafayette. (Photo: Leslie Westbrook, The Advertiser)

When 45 states, including Louisiana, began using Common Core standards this fall, public schools had no choice but to implement them, especially in math and English.

But because private schools are free from state oversight, they can choose whether to use Common Core. So far, no clear consensus appears to have emerged.

Across Acadiana, it appears that few private schools have embraced Common Core. Some schools take the standards into account while creating a curriculum that strives for academic excellence and spiritual growth. Others are taking a wait-and-see approach, while acknowledging that changes to textbooks and tests might result in the standards filtering onto their campuses.

Many schools have resisted Common Core, saying their own standards exceed the new requirements. One school — Teurlings Catholic — is using Common Core, largely because it aligns with its existing curriculum.

That kind of mixed and guarded approach seems to be the case at many private schools across the country.

“When we talk about the Common Core, we often get no real response,” said Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents about 1,400 private schools. “There are certainly a few schools that are using the Common Core and really adopting it as the framework of the curriculum. But far and away, the much more common response has been that they are taking a look, maybe incorporating certain parts of it, or not really looking at it at all.”

Among Catholic schools, dioceses and organizations often leave the Common Core decision up to individual schools. Earlier this year, the National Catholic Educational Association maintained that the standards “in no way compromise the Catholic identity or educational program of a Catholic school” and gave its support to schools who wish to use Common Core. However, the association also maintained that the decision should be made on a local level.

Pick-and-choose philosophy

With a multitude of curriculum plans, textbooks and resources at their disposal, private and parochial schools can combine elements to create academic standards and lesson plans that work for their schools. With the introduction of Common Core, many administrators are reviewing the standards and applying some of it into their programs, without full adoption.

“The Common Core State Standards are reviewed along with many other resources in the development of the Our Lady of Fatima School curriculum,” Principal Joni Duos said via email, adding that the school is not currently using Common Core.

“Our philosophy is to pick and choose from many resources in the development of our curriculum which best fits the population Our Lady of Fatima School serves,” Duos continued.

That same kind of approach is taking place at St. Thomas More Catholic High School.

“It is not a matter of whether we adopt them or not; it is a matter of taking them into consideration and looking at how we can use these standards in a positive way to enhance our curriculum,” said STM academic coordinator Jill Doise via email. “We have the luxury of looking at the standards as a way to enhance our curriculum while preserving our Catholic identity.”

Several states and the National Catholic Educational Association have created the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative, an effort to help schools who choose to use the standards but do not want them to affect their religious programs. The initiative’s leaders acknowledge that most Catholic schools will probably not fully adopt Common Core, but will use parts of the standards in the coming years.

“Catholic schools must always look for ways for their students to have multiple encounters with Christ each day,” according to the initiative Web site. “There are national efforts underway to assist schools and teachers in an organized effort to provide even more links to our faith while studying various curricular areas, as teachers work towards the goals stated in the standards.”

Johanna Cole Pham has worked as an educator and has a son who attends the public Lafayette High School and a daughter at the private Episcopal School of Acadiana. Pham said she has no problem with public schools using Common Core and private schools using their own standards.

“A private school is private for a reason, and parents are aware of that and make a choice,” she said. “I’m a very open and tolerant person in that regard. As an educator, I would hope the private schools use something comparable to set the standard as high as Common Core is, or even higher. I would hope that every educator would hold their students to a very high standard.”

Many Catholic schools in the Lafayette area did not respond to multiple inquiries about its use of the standards. Of those who responded, only Teurlings Catholic High is using Common Core extensively. Marty Heintz, Teurlings’ assistant principal for academics, said the school was already following many of the Common Core standards for English before this year.

“We actually had been doing a lot of Common Core in our English department as far back as the early 2000s. We implemented a comprehensive writing program, and it changed our focus on literature to a lot of big question ideas,” Heintz said. “We really did not change anything in the English department, except we did add a little more informational literature.”

Heintz said the use of Common Core has resulted in math classes that are faster-paced, but the school is phasing in those standards and using them as more of a baseline, rather than the ultimate goal.

“We’re not really having any problems with it in math,” she said. “These are minimal standards. We go above that, and that’s the way we look at it. There’s a lot of things that we do that are not specified within those Common Core standards, that we feel students need to know to better prepare them for college and life after high school.”

‘Seeking to form the soul’

Some area private schools have opted not to use any part of Common Core. Peter Fletcher, headmaster of John Paul the Great Academy, said his school uses a classical educational model that is “quite disconnected” from Common Core goals.

“The classical education model focuses on the individual child and seeking to form the soul of the child, to know the truth, to love goodness and appreciate nature,” Fletcher said. “The model is more the formation of the whole person. There is much more concrete learning. In science, they are discovering directly by experiments in nature or in the lab. It’s less about calculations and formulas. It’s that very direct kind of education.”

Fletcher said the curriculum at his school emphasizes phonics, Greek and Latin roots, music, poetry, speaking, rhetoric and more. Although John Paul the Great and other private schools eventually may need to use textbooks that are Common Core-aligned, Fletcher said he does not think that would change the school’s overall teaching philosophy.

“At a school like John Paul the Great, textbooks are important as a supplemental resource, but our students learn primarily by studying closely original documents and literature. We don’t want to read about the Gettysburg Address — we want to read it directly,” he said.

Merida Brooks, superintendent of Westminster Christian Academy, said the school has chosen not to use Common Core for several reasons. One is that its own standards already exceed Common Core. Aside from that, Brooks said she and other administrators prefer an educational model with more local and parental control, rather than universal guidelines.

“The mission of Westminster Christian Academy is to assist parents in education. At Westminster, we view education as a partnership, and Common Core centralizes education,” Brooks said. “That’s a big deal to Westminster. We don’t usurp the authority of the parents at our school. Common Core completely eliminates local control over education.”

Brooks said that although the idea of common standards is good in theory, the reality is that different students will have various strengths and weaknesses that should be taken into account.

“Our theory at Westminster is that we do want everyone to perform at their maximum potential, whatever that is. We’re happy with the standards that we have, which already exceed the standards of Common Core,” she said.

Brandi Trahan, whose daughter attends Lafayette Christian Academy, said she has no problem with the school not using Common Core. Like many other private schools, the academy uses a variety of sources to create its curriculum, including A Beka materials.

“The amount of scholarships these children get at LCA speaks for itself,” Trahan said via email. “I grew up in the public school systems, and my sixth-grader is smarter than me due to LCA and their Beka program. She has a 12th-grade reading level, and she’s 11. My daughter was reading, adding and writing in cursive at the age of 4. Maybe the public school system could take notes from these private schools and their curricular programs.”

McGovern said it is not unusual for independent schools to operate under a philosophy of choosing their own lessons in the manner they feel is best for their students.

“They’re all mission-driven, with very different focuses, and they also tend to view independence as a kind of mission in itself,” she said. “Often, what we find is they really value that independence to create their own curriculum.”

Still, over time it may be difficult for private schools to avoid the Common Core influence. More textbook companies are expected to align their materials to the standards. Also, college preparatory tests, such as the SAT and ACT, will probably be adjusted to incorporate Common Core.

“We’re going to continue to do what we’re doing for the moment,” said Dan Savoie, principal of Lafayette Christian Academy. “They might be adjusting the ACT tests in the future to coincide with the standards, so in the future, that might force us to take another look. But until further notice, we’re going to stand pat and see how it progresses.”

McGovern said other schools across the country are also keeping close tabs on the trickle-down effects of Common Core.

“It is a federal program, but it’s influencing a lot of different avenues,” she said. “The SAT is probably going to be shaped by Common Core. While it certainly won’t be a test of the Common Core, they will probably dovetail a little bit. Even though independent schools are not required to adhere to the Common Core, it may have more influence than they would necessarily like.”

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