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Westport 2025: Initiative brings parents back to classroom

Updated 11:25 am, Tuesday, March 12, 2013
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Classes will be in session Thursday evening at Bedford Middle School -- but not for students. Instead, parents will be the ones doing the learning.

They will attend several "classes" that night for a "Community Conversation" organized by the school district and Westport's parent teacher associations on Westport 2025: Meeting the Global Challenge.

Launched in 2010, Westport 2025 is a districtwide, kindergarten-through-12th-grade curriculum initiative, which aims to develop students' critical-thinking, creative, communication and problem-solving skills. During the Community Conversation, department chairmen in grades 6-12 and elementary-school subject coordinators will deliver presentations on the evolution of math, science, English and social studies curricula since the implementation of Westport 2025. The event will also allow parents to ask questions and provide feedback about Westport 2025 and receive tips from administrators on how to further develop at home the skills their children learn through the 2025 framework.

"This is a chance for parents to give their input and get involved," said Ginny McGovern, co-president of the Westport Parent Teacher Association Council. "It's really important for parents to understand what's going on."

Designed by Westport educators with professors and doctoral students from Columbia University's Teachers College, Westport 2025 has spurred a number of major curriculum changes in the school district. In social studies, the school district launched the ninth-grade Global Themes course at the start of the 2011-12 year, a class that encapsulates the Westport 2025 learning paradigm. Instead of taking a traditional final exam, Global Themes students participate in a year-end "problem-learning experience" based on a real-world scenario. For some students last year, that project required them to come up with a plan for Apple to turn a profit from the manufacturing of products abroad, while ensuring that workers were treated equitably in the country where the devices were made. Those students then presented their proposals to a panel of experts drawn from outside the school district.

"We're moving forward in the 21st century and the way we're teaching now and the expectations for kids going out into the world, both of those things are different from when parents were going to school," said Lis Comm, the school district's director of secondary education. "The world is a different place, more is expected of kids and therefore the teaching is different."

Continuing the drive toward a more contemporary social-studies program, the school district implemented a new curriculum for sixth-graders who take that subject, switching from a focus on early-American history to world geography and cultures. Those sixth-grade pupils are also taking advantage of new online textbooks, which feature videos, audio clips and interactive activities and allow students to take notes in those texts.

During the next two years, the seventh-grade and eighth-grade social studies curricula will also be revamped.

"Westport 2025 has given us a focus as we proceed and implement changes," said James D'Amico, the chairman of the social studies department in grades 6-12. "It really answers the question about what are our parameters going to be. It's really helped to guide the changes."

Westport 2025 also emphasizes the cultivation of students' "global awareness," a capacity that school officials believe will be crucial to pupils thriving in a wide range of globalized professions. The 2025 initiative also has international roots. Field work conducted by Teachers College researchers at schools in Canada, Australia, Finland Singapore and China created the basis for a "global capacities framework" that acted as a "tool and provocateur" for Westport educators to think about the skills the town's public-school students need to develop, said Ruth Vinz, chairwoman of the arts and humanities department at Teachers College.

"What makes what they are doing in Westport different is that they come with a vision," Vinz added. "It prepares the students for 2025, when they will need to be citizens who work in a more global community, and their work environments may be more global than local."

Amid the curriculum changes initiated by Westport 2025, students and educators will soon have to adapt to another academic benchmark. Starting in the 2014-15 school year, all Connecticut standardized tests will be based on the Common Core Standards, which have been adopted by 46 states. The Common Core does not mandate specific curriculum revisions, but its implementation appears likely to produce substantial changes in Westport's academic programming, including the possible introduction of five full days of kindergarten. But education officials express confidence that the arrival of Common Core will complement, not conflict with Westport 2025's goals.

"We think the 21st century skills that we're trying to teach certainly encompass the Common Core," Comm added. "But they move beyond the Common Core to go even further in terms of creativity and global awareness and problem solving."

The Community Conversation on Westport 2025: Meeting the Global Challenge is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Bedford Middle School, 88 North Ave.

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott