Big Rapids schools adapts curriculum to post-pandemic needs

BIG RAPIDS — Have you ever wondered how your district's school curriculum is planned?

Big Rapids Public Schools curriculum director Deb Tyson is intimately familiar with the job of organizing and implementing grade-based educational materials for the district.

A year-round job, being a curriculum director entails lots of planning ahead of time and research based on student needs. 

Tyson’s career in education first began with work as a teacher. She started as a teacher on the east side of the state and became a teacher at St. Michael’s in Remus before eventually landing a role in the principal’s chair there. 

She spent 13 years at St. Michael’s before accepting a position at Riverview Elementary where she taught for several years before accepting a position as the district’s curriculum director. 

“I not only do the curriculum part for the district, but I also do the lead negotiating and the hiring and the HR part of what we do here in the central office so I do have a couple of different hats that I wear,” Tyson said.

Tyson said the process of working through curriculum information is a complex one.

 “Everything starts from the foundation of looking at what students need to be successful. There are certain benchmarks that our students have to meet in each grade, and our goal is for our students to meet each one of those benchmarks. 

“We have a district school improvement team which consists of teachers and para pros, and also special ed teachers, myself, and any of our literacy coaches and our title one people that work one on one with students who need improvement,” she added. “Our team is quite large, but we meet often, look at data, and we look at our NWEA testing, we look at our Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress data."

The district analyzes its economically disadvantaged and special education students and often looks at where they could improve resources in those areas in addition to the rest of the student body. 

A major part of adapting to the pandemic’s challenges has been handling COVID-19 case numbers and returning to in-person learning.

According to the district’s Annual Education Report, the district’s graduation rate in 2020 was 68.75%. 

The district had an on-track attendance rate of 80.07% with an initial goal of 92.37%. 

“Some of the things that we're looking at are absences and how many times kids were absent throughout those years during the pandemic and looking at where they're benchmarking now,” Tyson said. “We want to know where they're at and their level of reading and math, and just focusing on those students is one of the biggest things in their school improvement. We have an equity and literacy goal, and that's looking at all students and where they're at in their reading skills."

The district has implemented literature coaches at the middle school and high school levels and hired several paraprofessionals to aid students with work for classes.  

The district approaches each grade and subject differently when planning or updating the curriculum. 

“Normally, we have an adaption cycle of every seven years for specific subjects and specific grades,” Tyson said. “Since the pandemic, reading and math have come to the surface, so we are looking at and piloting a couple of different math and reading programs for Kindergarten through eighth grade next year.

Tyson said approaching education from a holistic perspective is key for the administration. 

“Having the pandemic happen we definitely are looking at some different gaps that we have in our learning,” she added. “I really feel like we're really focusing on those gaps because literacy and reading touch every subject. Along with a lot of the social and emotional pieces of what our kids have gone through these past couple of years. We are implementing a program called Trails this year, which is a social-emotional program where we've hired two behavioral specialists at our elementary along with their already social workers.” 

Through her work as curriculum director Tyson works with almost every teacher at every grade level to determine where education gaps exist and how the district can work on tackling them. 

Tyson is celebrating 30 years in education and plans to continue work at BRPS with improving student achievement. 

“I see a lot of great things happening next year,” Tyson said. “I'm hoping our teachers and the people who are off in the summer are having a great summer and restful summer, and they come back rejuvenated and ready to go in a post-pandemic world.”