Common Core a hit with St. Benilde principal

More personalized instruction to maximize a student’s ability to excel is the teaching focus at St. Benilde School in Metairie.

Matt Downey, starting his third year at St. Benilde and eighth year overall as a principal, says when parents ask about curriculum, he answers, “Your child is our curriculum.”

This strategy is part of a larger curriculum movement at St. Benilde that included piloting the Common Core math standards beginning 18 months ago.

“You want to have the most rigorous, high-content standards we could get our hands on, and that is Common Core,” Downey said. “When we are determining student readiness, we are determining it using Common Core standards.”

He said the individualized curriculum and Common Core standards influence each other. “Common Core, because of how challenging it is, really requires that you go in this personalized direction,” Downey said.

Downey has discovered how Common Core standards increased the critical-thinking skills of students. For example, he said before Common Core math standards were implemented, students learned to plug numbers into formulas to solve, say, a three-digit addition problem.

“As long as kids could recognize the formula, they were proficient in doing it,” he said. “However, if you give them a word problem that required use of the same three-digit addition, students wouldn’t be able to develop a three-digit equation to form an answer.

“Common Core is about showing kids reasoning skills so they can develop formulas or a whole series of formulas to work with. … They can now read a word problem, identify what type of formula needs to be created and can develop it on their own. We have found that it places more emphasis on math fluency skills – their math facts.”

How progress is measured
Downey knew changes were necessary at St. Benilde to reverse a slight downward test score trend he tracked over a 10-year period. Data proved how some students don’t learn as fast or in the same way as others, so teaching the same way was no longer an option.

“If you expect kids to learn the same way, it’s a problem,” Downey said. “I don’t think it’s the kids; I think it is the model.”

Combining computer-based assessments and resources, including worksheets, manipulatives (especially in math), with digital-based resources such as the 1:1 computer program in the classroom, the higher Common Core math standards and individualized instruction made the difference.

The annual TerraNova assessment used by archdiocese and quarterly STAR assessments were utilized to gauge success. STAR assessments allowed Downey to compare student achievement based on both Common Core standards and Louisiana Grade Level Expectations. Along the way, he found that Common Core standards were a full year above state standards.

Downey gave an example of how all but one or two fifth graders reached or exceeded state grade-level expectations in math, but only one was at or above Common Core standards. The rest of kids were almost a full year behind.

“Kids were being asked to do stuff a year earlier than they are used to,” which in and of itself is not concerning, he said. “The brain is capable of doing that. What I worry about is the pedagogy – the teaching of it.”

The mixed testing results in the first testing cycle after introducing Common Core math standards blended with personal instruction were to be expected. But, Downey was pleased with the second test results that came in the third quarter of the 2013-14 year.

“This school year, we saw a pretty dramatic positive response on the scores –the math computation scores doubled in some classes,” he said. “For the vast majority of the math sections, we saw increases. We anticipate greater gains when we switch to Common Core (in English-Language Arts) this school year.”

How teachers prepared
Teachers prepared for the instructional shift with in-services training from specialists and the Office of Catholic Schools. Downey also hired an assistant principal “well-versed in pedagogy and curriculum” to work solely on curriculum and teacher instruction.

To make the “continuous progress” method of teaching work, Downey coordinates teachers as teams. Students are grouped by readiness skills in a multi-grade classroom, allowing teachers to focus on individual needs of students with the goal of returning to their initial classroom. By Christmastime last year, all kids were back in their regular classroom. 

“It’s more moving,” he said for teachers and students. “The difficult part is you are taking teachers through a paradigm shift in education – away from industrialized model and more a laboratory type of setting where you are looking at each individual kid. Once they go through the shift and see the benefit of it, it’s easy to get them to move.”

His teachers embraced it.
“It was a lot of hard work, but they are impacting kids in a way they were never able to. And that’s the payoff.”

Downey expressed initial skepticism about Common Core when the standards were introduced while he was a principal in West Virginia, wondering  how a bunch of states could devise standards that wouldn’t be watered down. His extensive testing of the standards for the past 18 months has changed his mind. He’s also disproved that Common Core standards and resources would take the Catholicity out of his curriculum.

“I don’t see at all how these Common Core standards prevent me from teaching Catholicism,” Downey said. “(Common Core’s) emphasis on source material drives me to get kids to read … the hard core of the Catholic Church. The Bible is a source text.”

For Downey, quality education boils down to one thing.

“The question is for me – the kids I am being entrusted to teach – what are the highest-quality, expectation standards available for me to use?” Downey said. “Common Core fits that. If tomorrow someone comes up with something better, I’d advocate for that.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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