Curriculum Leader To Learn From

Taking an Unapologetic Approach to Curriculum Overhaul

By Sarah Schwartz — February 17, 2021 11 min read
Danielle Kelsick, Chief Academic Officer for the Environmental Charter Schools in Redondo Beach, Calif.
Danielle Kelsick
Recognized for Leadership in Curriculum & Literacy
Curriculum & Literacy
Chief Academic Officer
Success District:
Environmental Charter Schools, Redondo Beach, Calif.
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Danielle Kelsick can pinpoint the moment she realized she wanted to teach.

At the time, Kelsick, now the chief academic officer at Environmental Charter Schools in Los Angeles County, was running a community mentorship program at a charter school in the District of Columbia.

In faculty meetings, she listened to her colleagues talk at length about school culture: behavior, comportment, uniforms. “I remember sitting there thinking, ‘But they’re not talking about learning and teaching,’ ” she said.

The experience crystalized an understanding that has driven her work since. All children deserve instruction that pushes them to think deeply and honors their intellectual curiosity. But that kind of instruction doesn’t just happen spontaneously. Schools need to articulate a vision that puts teaching, learning, and thinking at the center.

At ECS, a small charter network with two middle schools and two high schools, Kelsick has implemented a literacy approach designed to deepen how students tackle challenging texts across disciplines. She overhauled the teacher-coaching model to focus more on student outcomes. And she’s pushed the organization, which serves mostly students of color, to integrate issues of social and racial justice into the curriculum work.

But more impressive than making all these changes is that she’s made them stick, said Beth Bernstein-Yamashiro, the organization’s director of principal development. Often, people “wait out” innovations, but Kelsick knows how to “nurture the pieces” of a new initiative, Bernstein-Yamashiro said, getting buy-in from teachers and school leaders, leading to lasting change.

Lessons From the Leader

  • Serve Unapologetically: Be upfront about the community you serve and be proud of your specific vision for its students. Clarifying your commitments will keep you and others focused on what matters most.
  • Forge Authentic Partnerships With School Leaders: School leaders get behind initiatives that they understand and believe in. By participating in the development and implementation process, they become genuine partners who will champion those initiatives even when they encounter obstacles.
  • Model Your Vision: Use every opportunity you have to show teachers, coaches, and leaders what the change looks and feels like. Leading by example, you can empower a community of educators to internalize a bold vision for change together.

“She’s one of the most skilled professional-development leaders I’ve ever seen,” said Farnaz Golshani Flechner, the executive director and CEO of ECS. “She’s incredibly thoughtful and patient and … she wants people to come to the conclusions on their own, which is really powerful.”

Giving students the tools

Kelsick, 40, grew up in suburban Atlanta, where an educational experience was foundational to her understanding of what equitable schools looked like.

In 4th grade, she started attending a magnet school designed to desegregate metro Atlanta. Students were admitted through a combination of test and lottery.

Kelsick, who is Black, didn’t know at the time that the program was an integration effort. But the experience—learning alongside a racially diverse group of students all considered equally gifted, being challenged and respected by her teachers—instilled in her the belief that “being smart was something that anybody could do or be,” she said. That confidence is something all kids should be able to experience, she thought.

After high school, Kelsick attended Amherst College. Majoring in religion, she was struck by how interdisciplinary her learning was, exploring all sides of an issue: history, theory, real-world application. Years later, in those staff meetings at the D.C. charter school, thoughts about Amherst would run through her mind.

“I was listening to those teachers talking about uniforms and belts and I was like, they could be ... laying the groundwork or even doing some high school version of what I got in college.” It would be more interesting for students, she thought, and it would empower them to think more broadly.

Teachers are professionals, and they’re experts in their content and their grade level. They’re going to be the ones to tell us if it works or not.

She left Washington and went back to school to get her teacher certification and a master’s in theological studies. As a teacher in the Bronx borough of New York City and then at ECS, she tried to put this kind of rigorous, interdisciplinary education into action, selecting meaty texts and facilitating intellectual debate. Then, as an assistant principal at ECS’ Inglewood middle school campus, she attended a training that would help her scale up that vision.

As part of an effort to bring their literacy approach in line with the Common Core State Standards, Kelsick and several teachers at Inglewood were introduced to Reading Apprenticeship, a literacy framework developed by WestEd.

The approach focuses on disciplinary literacy—teaching secondary students that the way you read a science paper is different from how you’d read a novel, which is different again from how you might approach a math word problem. It encourages teachers to be intentional about text selection and to explicitly teach metacognition strategies, like how students can visualize what they’re reading, monitor their understanding of new vocabulary, or describe their thought process while working through a tricky problem.

It reflected what Kelsick had been trying to piece together over her years in the classroom—giving students the tools they needed to engage deeply with all kinds of texts and ideas. Bringing it back to teachers, she thought, would give them the road map that she hadn’t had.

‘They need to see the need’

In the first year that a few teachers at Inglewood started applying the Reading Apprenticeship framework, Olivia Penka, who teaches English and History, was already starting to see a change in the way her students approached reading.

They used to wait for a teacher to offer them scaffolds when confronted with a challenging passage. Now, they dove right in—they had their own strategies.

In a recent class, for example, after students read an informational passage, Penka recalled asking them to discuss the tools they’d used to understand the text. They came up with a list of 13 strategies, including drawing from their background knowledge and noting questions as they read. And if those questions were still unanswered once students finished reading, they would more quickly ask for help, Penka said.

English/language arts scores rose that first year, and word spread among teachers at Inglewood, drumming up interest in more training. But for Kelsick, it was important to wait for teacher demand before trying to take Reading Apprenticeship organizationwide.

“I’ve seen and I’ve done change where it’s like, OK, ‘Here’s what we’re doing,’” she said. “In my experience, it doesn’t actually work. It doesn’t even last out the year sometimes.

“Teachers are professionals, and they’re experts in their content and their grade level,” Kelsick continued. “They’re going to be the ones to tell us if it works or not. They need to see the need, the value, and feel like they get to make choices.”

Danielle Kelsick, Chief Academic Officer for the Environmental Charter Schools in Redondo Beach, Calif.

After bringing teachers, principals, and assistant principals through the training, Kelsick set RA as a networkwide priority for the 2019-20 school year. At the same time, she was reshaping professional development and teacher evaluation. She built a case for student-centered coaching, a model that focuses on how the teacher’s practice leads to changes in student work and understanding. Kelsick spent a year studying and discussing the model with school leadership teams, developing buy-in and piloting pieces of the strategy. It became a professional expectation for teachers that student work would reflect growth in the students’ ability to tackle texts successfully.

All the while, she tapped principals and assistant principals to lead this ongoing work at their school sites.

“Danielle is really good at building capacity in others,” said Jane Wyche, the assistant principal at ECS’ Lawndale high school campus. “She brings something, she gets it going, she identifies the right people to then move the thing forward and then take ownership, which then allows her to move on to: What’s the next big thing?”

Navigating the COVID-19 crisis

In the 2019-20 school year, that “next big thing” was supposed to be applying RA strategies to math: helping students better parse word problems and articulate their mathematical thinking. But 2020 had other plans.

In March, ECS shut down in-person classes because of the pandemic. Kelsick had been on maternity leave at the time. She cut it short.

When she came back several weeks into distance learning, Kelsick found a situation similar to what was occurring in many schools in the country at that point in the pandemic: educators trying their hardest to reinvent the wheel in crisis, with little centralized coordination.

So Kelsick went back to square one, starting with ECS’ vision for teaching and learning. She asked herself and her colleagues what modifications needed to be made to achieve that vision in this new environment.

This led to hard conversations about how much to expect of students and teachers during a crisis, and Kelsick made room for all voices, said K.C. Fabiero, the principal at ECS’ Lawndale high school campus.

“You can give her so much information and data and different perspectives, and she’s able to synthesize all of that and come out with a way to address everyone in the room,” Fabiero said.

Charity Rock, a secondary-math specialist, recalled a conversation about assessment. Some teachers thought students shouldn’t be tested during an already stressful period, but Rock and others argued that they needed the data a test would provide to know how to help students. The two groups were at an impasse when Kelsick reframed the conversation to focus on what they agreed on: that they had to be specific in their approach in order to really put students’ needs first.

“Everyone said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re totally aligned,’ ” Rock remembers. It led Rock to create a new, authentic math assessment specifically for that year that teachers helped revise, she said.

Over the summer, Kelsick organized working groups staffed with teachers, site leaders, and department chairs to plan for retooling curriculum, tracking attendance, and designing the master schedule for the 2020-21 school year.

Involving a diverse group of stakeholders led to a stronger final plan, and it gave school leaders a model for how to shape inclusive decisionmaking during the pandemic at their own sites, said Bernstein-Yamashiro, the principal-development director. “It created a high level of participation, engagement, and investment,” she said.

An ‘unapologetic’ approach to anti-Blackness

That summer, teachers and students were also processing another crisis—the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests against police brutality.

The organization named confronting anti-Blackness as a priority this fall, a goal that builds on years of work that Kelsick had done at ECS.

As an assistant principal at the Inglewood campus, responsible for student discipline, Kelsick led anti-bias work with teachers to lower the disproportionate rate at which Black boys were referred to her for behavior issues.

Later, she would helm the effort to create an equity and diversity committee in the organization and lead its work for several years. When the school system rewrote its mission statement a few years ago, Kelsick pushed the board to include in the text that ECS is dedicated to serving low-income communities of color.

“For a while, I was the only director of color in the organization,” Kelsick said. “For me, as a Black person, I have spent a long time coming to terms with my identity and what that means for my place in the world and my position as a teacher.” She’s pushed her co-workers to think about their identities in the same way, she said, because it’s important for ECS to be explicit about its values.

“That’s a role that I think I have played since joining the organization, is to surface conversations like that,” Kelsick said. “Instead of them being in the background and this kind of subtext, instead, let’s talk about it. And the result is, I think we have become more unapologetic about our work and more unapologetic about serving students of color—and more recently about confronting anti-Blackness.”

Now, staff members are reading Teaching for Black Lives and doing a book study together using Reading Apprenticeship strategies. The metacognitive processes are helping teachers deepen their understanding, Kelsick said, but it’s also symbolic—that not only can anti-racism and instructional rigor coexist as top priorities for a school system, but they can also reinforce each other.

If you have a complex problem or issue that you look at from lots of different angles, that’s where you can have the disciplinary rigor—and the relevance.

It’s an idea she’s had to work to convince others of. In a recent Reading Apprenticeship training session, staff asked: Are we preparing students to test well and succeed in college? Or are we preparing them to think critically about society? “To me, it’s not a dichotomy,” Kelsick said. “The path to critical thinking is interdisciplinary instruction.

“If you have a complex problem or issue that you look at from lots of different angles, that’s where you can have the disciplinary rigor—and the relevance,” she continued. A rich topic—like gentrification or climate change—can support deep intellectual inquiry while raising questions of justice and engaging with social issues that feel relevant to students. This year, Kelsick is working on PD for teachers focused on interweaving these priorities in instruction, “so that it’s not this kind of accident or surprise but something that you can plan for, prep for, and think it through,” she said.

Even with all the summer planning, Kelsick still worries about the barriers teachers face to using the RA framework in a virtual environment. Everything from annotating text to having class discussions requires teachers and students to learn new processes and technologies.

But they are persevering. Kelsick returned from the second half of her interrupted maternity leave in September to see that schools were still pushing forward on the math work.

Kristen Donahue, a 2nd year math teacher at Inglewood, said shifting focus to examine students’ thought processes has made students more comfortable talking about their mistakes—even over Zoom. She can usually get a volunteer to unmute and talk through a word problem. “I don’t have to pull teeth,” she said.

Kelsick is proud that principals and teachers feel like they “own” ECS’ academic vision. “It takes a lot of foundational work to build it that way,” she said. “But I know that it will survive me.”

Coverage of the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Creating an Interdisciplinary Learning Culture

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