A committee of Albemarle County educators and specialists is designing a new curriculum focused on relationships for all middle school students, and planning to launch the program this fall. School division officials say it will replace the current “Advisory” period content at the start of each day in a more consistent manner.
“In the past, we’ve used a model from a company called Developmental Designs for our Advisory lessons, which are about getting to know yourself and your classmates, building confidence and motivation, and setting goals,” said Deputy Superintendent Debora Collins. “We began to notice that we had a variety of lessons going on in our various schools, and we felt like we were getting a bit disconnected, which was not an equitable opportunity for our students. So, this project is intended to make us all more aligned.”
Neeley Minton, the division’s social studies lead coach and chair of the committee, said that Developmental Designs is an important component of professional development for middle school teachers. “[The program] encompasses both the academic and social needs of adolescents,” she said. “Its practices and principles create equitable, trauma-informed classrooms in which adolescents learn and benefit from responsible independence.”
The committee comprises 15 members representing all five of the middle schools and the Community Lab School, and members include classroom teachers, an equity specialist, instructional coaches, and central staff. “Our overall goal is to help students fulfill their highest potential as collaborative, thoughtful, caring, and valued individuals and contributors to their school and larger communities,” said Minton, who is facilitating a subcommittee focused on identity.
“The curriculum will not be for an instructional class,” said Minton. “It’s intended to be a set time in the students’ week focused on several key areas: self, others, careers, digital citizenship, and social and emotional awareness.” Minton said that draft objectives include “students knowing their own unique names, backgrounds, family/friends, identities, culture, strengths, areas of growth, interests, values, and hopes/dreams,” as well as understanding that “learning about their classmates’ identities and culture helps to build empathy.”
The new curriculum will be taught by middle school teachers, almost all of whom supervise an Advisory period of 15 or so students each day. “After the curriculum is written we’ll do some teacher training around the lessons so that everybody makes sure that they understand the KUD’s [what the students should know, understand, and be able to do], just like we would be designing lessons for any other content area,” said Collins. “Very similar to what we did with Freshman Seminar.”
Johari Harris-Ward, an assistant professor of education at UVA, is serving as an outside consultant to the committee and helping to create the theoretical framing of the program’s units and lessons. “My research focuses on racial and ethnic identity (REI) development during adolescence and REI’s role in social-emotional learning,” said Harris-Ward. “As I understand it, the goal of these lessons will be to support middle school students during this process of exploration and resolution to create positive, affirmative identities.”
An earlier iteration of a curriculum dealing with some of the same topics raised questions among parents and students. Henley Middle School piloted a set of lessons over six weeks in the late spring of 2021 called “Courageous Conversations Around Race,” which covered issues of identity, community, bias, discrimination, and social justice, with an emphasis on anti-racism as an active, unifying theme for eighth graders. Five western district families have recently filed a lawsuit against the county school board, alleging that the anti-racism curriculum employs racially discriminatory policies and practices against students.
Neeley says the committee’s approach differs significantly from those earlier lessons. “Our curriculum will be constructivist and inquiry-based,” she said. “Teachers are not expected to do any direct instruction on identity, fairness, or unfairness, for example. Instead, teachers will facilitate the process by which students will do their own research, draw their own conclusions, and construct their own knowledge and understandings.”
Still, the division’s 2021 Anti-Racism policy report highlights “developing an anti-racism curriculum” as a key project, and states that this committee is tasked with creating a middle school advisory framework to achieve this goal. “One of the age-appropriate and relevant concepts that middle school teachers will explore as a subset of the Middle School Advisory Framework will be anti-racism,” reads the report.
When asked whether the content of Henley’s anti-racism lessons would be moved elsewhere in the students’ curriculum or would be blended into the new committee’s work, Collins said, “I would say it’s more of a blended approach.”
Harris-Ward was the project director of the Freedom School at UVA for two years and now oversees research there. The Freedom School is described on UVA’s website as “a free, virtual program, [in which] third- through fifth-graders are receiving literacy training based on material encouraging social activism and agency,” and Harris-Ward sees a place for similar training in the middle school curriculum.
“Education is an essential part of good citizenship and it is our duty, all of us, including teachers and parents, to support the development of students as justice-oriented citizens, who can make positive changes in their community at the local, state or national level,” she said. “It’s important—and the teachers have done an excellent job—to highlight the positive elements of racial and ethnic identities, which often are unexamined.”
With regard to resources and materials that will be used in the Advisory framework, no decisions have been made yet. “We expect that if there are readings or supplementary materials, they will be peer-reviewed to support the program’s goals of helping students fulfill their highest potential as collaborative, thoughtful, caring, and competent individuals and contributors to their school and larger communities,” said Neeley. “Keep in mind that our emphasis is on encouraging students to seek out their own supporting materials and research.”
Collins says that parents will have an opportunity to view and comment on the proposed curriculum before it goes to the School Board for approval. “I expect that the principals will take the curriculum back to their schools,” said Collins. “I just feel like that’s part of the process, so there would be opportunities at each school to give feedback before it’s approved. I can see maybe early fall, perhaps going to the board after the start of school once the kids are settled.”