In the last school day before Mother's Day, 8-year-old Frankie Munthe was eager to share his interpretation of "Mother to Son" with his classmates. He explained that it's about "roadblocks," referring to the poem's first line: "Well, son, I'll tell you. Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. It's had tacks in it, And splinters, And boards torn up, And places with no carpet on the floor – Bare."
Written in 1922 by Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance and now regarded as a classic work, the poem is commonly taught in schools, but students may not encounter it until after junior high or even college. However, the introduction of Common Core State Standards in Tennessee has afforded even elementary school teachers the flexibility to use curriculum in ways that foster critical thinking skills and require students to explain and defend their observations.
"I find that they can feel and identify with that poem," Graham Farnsworth, Frankie's teacher, said of his second-grade class, "and things that are higher level. Did they hit that poem like they would in a college class? No. But did they get things out of it? I can still teach the standards but also get them to learn a little bit of something about their history and our history as Americans."
Farnsworth said he was excited as Frankie drew from a sociology segment months earlier to comment on the status of African Americans addressed in Hughes's poem. One of only four Hispanic students at the predominantly African-American Cornerstone Preparatory School, Frankie first attended kindergarten at Lester School, physically located at the same site. Lester was targeted as an underachieving school by the state and brought under the state's Achievement School District, modeled on the Recovery School District in Louisiana. Within five years, the ASD's goal is to move schools rated within the lowest five percent to within the top 25 percent.
Diana Bey, the Curriculum Development Instructor at Cornerstone, explained that Frankie's family moved the year after kindergarten, so he spent virtually his entire first grade at another school. Yet, with an open enrollment policy under ASD, Frankie's mother decided that he would spend his last three days of first-grade year attending Cornerstone, just enough days to deem him eligible to return for second grade.
Frankie's mother decided to re-enroll her son at Cornerstone based on the hope that Bey, who had been Frankie's kindergarten teacher, would be able to train Cornerstone's other teachers to transmit the love of learning and high expectations to which Frankie had grown accustomed in her class. An experienced teacher who had home-schooled her children, Bey said she was "doing Common Core before there was a Common Core."
Though Frankie now commutes, his sincerity in valuing his attendance at Cornerstone speaks to the evident success of a school that faced, and still faces, a difficult transition for some of its students.
Cornerstone came to a community that wanted to retain the legacy of Lester, one of its few anchor institutions, a community that was leery of its school being taken over by Cornerstone, a new institution with which they had no familiarity.
"We had a really rough year, 2012-13," Lisa Settle, Cornerstone's principal acknowledged, "first year in the building; first year in the neighborhood." Settle said the school expended a lot of effort to communicate to parents, "but we could have done more." She understands that "parents had a really strong connection to the school as many of them had attended."
As a parent herself, Settle also empathizes with the day-to-day reality of education. "We have their children eight hours a day." Still, she said the community has had to face facts. "We've got fifth graders. Some of them couldn't read."
Settle said everyone knew Common Core was coming. For the school's current kindergarteners and first-grade students, the Common Core instructional methodology with classroom teachers trained under Bey's critical eye, it is the only educational reality most have ever known. A classroom visit to any grade level easily dispels the notion that the children are not up to the Common Core challenge.
In Katelyn Woodard's fifth-grade class, for example, math instruction that started with division word problems crackled with energy as students vied not only to come up with the correct answer, but to explain the process and theory that underlay their calculations. Woodward said that Common Core requires more planning than she had done prior to its introduction, but once in the classroom, "I've never had kids so engaged."
Bey said Woodard's experience is regularly shared by other teachers, some of whom are awed "watching second-graders solve problems that high school geometry or algebra students might see in their first weeks of school."
All of Cornerstone's kindergarteners and first-graders are now at reading level and above, a baseline that translates into putting its five-year achievement goals within reach. Yet, though every child has a personalized education plan, one which assesses the academic deficiencies that need to be shored up, obstacles still remain.
For one, teachers had to prepare students to take the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, which measures academic progress as well as work through the introduction of Common Core State Standards. Principal Settle explained that the way "TCAP questions are asked is very different" and teachers have had to use Common Core as a broad framework for instruction while still having to be cognizant of the need to prepare students to do well on the state exams. "We've had to teach both ways."
Still, academically struggling students present a thorny dilemma. Settle said that the Achievement School District does not "socially promote" students to the next grade; they must earn advancement. A few students already had been "retained" or repeated the same grade. Settle has a watch list and is constantly in touch with the parents of those students, an outreach that supplements parent-teacher conferences as well as the notes teachers send home to parents about the need to strengthen a child's specific areas of study.
"We have teachers who do phenomenal things, but even if we have teachers who grew students three grade levels – which is astronomical – you're still at third grade competency and you're going into sixth grade," Settle explained.
Frankie, who speaks mostly Spanish at home with his mother, has made the other watch list as one of approximately 31 students comprising what Settle soon anticipates will be Cornerstone's first gifted and talented program.
Bey, on the other hand, has no lack of confidence that her teacher corps will be ready next year as Cornerstone absorbs Lester's sixth-grade class. While many schools look askance at young or new teachers, Bey welcomes Common Core as a way to stimulate them despite her demanding training regimen.
"I have conversations with teachers about what our future looks like as instructors and it's so exciting. I can just see the life blood come into them."