It’s a norm at Sacred Heart for students to be engaging in rich, standards-aligned grade-level curriculum while simultaneously given opportunities to bring their unique strengths, knowledge, and skills to the classroom. You could walk into a Kindergarten classroom and see a teacher working with a small group while other students are working independently through a variety of learning modalities, or visit a fourth grade classroom and see students working in small groups on project-based work, each bringing their own personal brilliances into the projects, and consulting their teacher as they move along. Teachers adjust their instruction to support students when they are working through challenges, and provide scaffolds only where needed.
Two years after our story about Sacred Heart STEM School in Boston, we followed up with Principal Monica Haldiman and Assistant Principal Kate Cody to hear how they continue to support students, especially those with learning and thinking differences, with their ANet coach Erin Gilbert. The pride and love the dynamic Boston leadership duo have for their school shines through their words as Haldiman and Cody tell a familiar tale in education; evolving never ends.
Personalized Education for Students
As many educators are currently experiencing, the staff at Sacred Heart are in a rebuilding phase as they grapple with supporting students in the years following the pandemic. This year, a key goal was transitioning to a new ELA curriculum. They hoped to refine their approach to the ELA standards vertical progressions and establish a stronger foundation for students in literacy skills such as phonics. Their new curriculum adoption and implementation operated with the same values they’ve focused on for the past several years; everyone is safe here, everyone has a voice here, and everyone has the support to succeed in a rigorous academic environment. To create their enabling conditions, Erin Gilbert has helped the leaders at Sacred Heart STEM School create a strong foundation in literacy instruction with a new reading curriculum.
“When we're thinking about foundational skills…that was a gap in the prior curriculum … which did not do a good job of having systematic explicit phonics. Kids in grades K-3 were not learning to read in a way that set them up for success, particularly students who have reading challenges. The number one thing that students who have reading challenges need, whether they've been diagnosed with a specific reading disability or if they are undiagnosed, is a curriculum that focuses on those foundational skills,” said ANet Diverse Learner Specialist Erin Gilbert.
As part of the curriculum implementation, teachers and administrators began focus groups with their students. Every six weeks, elementary students have space to give their school leaders feedback on their experience with the new ELA curriculum, and on their overall experience at Sacred Heart. The ongoing journey of closely monitoring student progress through facilitating student focus groups, collecting and analyzing student data from formative and summative assessments, and studying progress in student work samples has proven to be a valuable learning experience for both teachers and administrators at Sacred Heart. Through the observations from their qualitative and quantitative data this school year, teachers have continually improved their instructional strategies based on effective approaches discussed during educator collaboration and coaching conversations.
“There’s this small group of students that we've been following all year, and when Erin visits they meet with us. They tell us how awesome they're doing, and how much they've learned. And it's really huge. They're gaining their confidence and saying yes, I can do this, too,” said Assistant Principal Kate Cody.
The upper-grade students continue to be the CEOs of their own learning, as mentioned in our previous story. The staff make space and help students feel comfortable saying what they need and what they don’t need to help them be successful in their lessons. Students feel accepted and included in their education. The students demonstrate their autonomy in activities such as STEM night, where students outline to their parents the parameters of their projects, their mistakes, their adjustments, and their solutions. These opportunities for students to showcase their knowledge start in Kindergarten, and continue throughout their education at Sacred Heart so the upper-grade students have increasing autonomy and confidence in their education.
Providing Consistent Support for Staff
Creating the opportunities and structures to empower student voice takes time and training. The leaders at Sacred Heart understand the pivotal role of strong instructional leadership in fostering student growth. Haldiman and Cody have introduced additional curriculum support through professional development programs, equipping teachers with the tools they need to excel. This investment in enhancing instructional practices benefits not only teachers but also improves student learning outcomes. The emphasis placed on individualized data analysis ensures that students receive tailored instruction that meets each child's unique needs. By prioritizing continuous improvement, Sacred Heart empowers educators to provide the highest level of education.
“I think one of the most amazing things was watching the teachers this year planning for all the different learners in their classroom, and knowing the children so well to have to differentiate those lessons every day,” said Principal Monica Haldiman.
While simultaneously working on implementing a new curriculum, both Sacred Heart leaders are working to address staff turnover. The pandemic led to the departure of three-quarters of Sacred Heart's team with many of Sacred Heart’s new staff including teachers in their first years leading a classroom. Haldiman and Cody leveraged their strong working relationship and prior knowledge as classroom educators and school leaders within this community to help the school efficiently rebuild its staff.
“They really love the kids, and they’re funky!” said Cody as Haldiman shook her head in agreement and chuckled. “They do different things that I would never dream of doing, but it works. Especially because the kids are not the same. We need this perspective to help our kids.”
With the staff changes, the administrative duo has put extra focus on supporting their staff. Recognizing the challenges faced by educators, they have prioritized promoting a positive staff culture, providing staff growth and development, and ensuring teachers have what they need. Haldiman and Cody both feel this school year has been packed with reflection, and they’ve developed a new ‘travel plan’ as this journey to support the staff in their building continues.
“It's also a new learning year for Kate and I because we find ourselves in a different place on the journey. We thought we were in one place on the journey, and we find out we're in a different place, so our travel plans so to speak have changed and we had to course correct. Erin’s been integral in that process, because she points things out for us all to think through,” said Haldiman.
The leaders sum up where they’re at perfectly as Principal Monica Haldiman says, “it’s been a reflective year, hasn’t it, Kate?” Assistant Principal Kate Cody shakes her head and says, “yeah, but I think it’s working,” as Erin and Monica smile in agreement.
Sacred Heart STEM School in Boston stands as an inspiring example of unwavering support for students and teachers alike. By empowering teachers and students, focusing on student voice and choice, and creating internal systems that allow individualized support for students, the team at Sacred Heart STEM School continues to make a difference in the lives of their students.