Du Quoin Unit District 300 is restoring the position of full-time director of curriculum, an investment in post-COVID education as officials work to determine where gaps in student learning have occurred during the pandemic and how to fill them.
Du Quoin Elementary School Principal Diana Rea will officially become the new curriculum director on July 1 -- which is a return to the job she held when she first joined the district.
Superintendent Matt Hickam said schools all over the nation are beginning to assess what students lost during a year of remote learning. Rea, he said, is uniquely qualified to lead the effort -- she was District 300's director of instructional services for about two years before she was named DES principal in 2014.
"She's worked extremely hard and done a great job as elementary school principal," he said. "But this is where her real passion is."
Hickam said Monday the district needs someone with a full-time focus on curriculum, especially given what the COVID-19 crisis has done to education in the past year.
"If you don't have someone to dedicated to the curriculum of a school district, you end up with too many gaps," Hickam said, "and you don't even know where those gaps are because no one is paying attention to it."
He said the building principals are doing a good job managing curriculum within their own buildings, but an overall perspective is needed, to make sure, for example, learning is coordinated when students change buildings between fourth and fifth grades, and eighth to ninth grade.
Hickam believes the loss in skill-building due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19 will have to be addressed over several years. "We will need a multiple-year plan to fully recover from the last 12 months," he said.
Rea agrees. "I think this is a three-year getting-back-to-normal," she said Monday, referencing not just her own opinion but that of other education experts. "There will obviously be gaps that we won't realize are there, until we're in the middle of something."
Hickam said while they are likely to discover learning gaps in many subjects, the biggest area of concern right now is mathematics.
"When you've had less time to build skills, you won't be making the same progress," he added. "It's been more noticeable in math -- not just in Du Quoin, but statewide and nationwide."
According to the most recent District 300 assessment, elementary students are testing at about the same level of math skill from a year ago, when schools were first closed to COVID-19, Rea said.
The District 300 school board first started thinking about restoring the curriculum director job as early as February 2020. A year of COVID-19, Hickam said, has made it urgent.
His choice for the job was always Rea, he said. The district will primarily use grant money to fund her new position, and the school board has started looking for a new DES principal.
Rea officially starts the new job on July 1, but her brain has been wrapping around the challenges for a while now.
"I've already been tackling all kinds of information on (educational) blogs and education magazines, looking for the best place to start," she said, noting that schools everywhere are asking the same questions.
Rea said a logical place to start is at the end -- high school graduation. "We ask, what do our graduates need to be proficient, and then work backward from there," she said.
Hickam said the director of curriculum position will be funded primarily from grant money the district receives. Some of those grants have been coming to District 300 for decades; others have to be applied for every year.
He said that even if some of that grant money goes away, he will remain committed to having the post filled, "because of the value of the position.
"When it comes to seeing student achievement as a priority, there is no more important thing to do than have a connected curriculum," Hickam said. "If you don't have anyone guiding that, it doesn't happen."