More than 50 years ago, ninth-grade teachers in the Northern Valley Regional High School district in Bergen County were reporting a troubling observation: It was taking up to a full semester to ready students for the ninth-grade standard curriculum.

Seven different elementary districts had seven different curriculum guides, significant differences in the breadth and depth with which core subjects were taught and grading scales and standards that varied widely. There were even different approaches to teaching. Students arrived to the district’s two high schools with no common understanding of what would be expected of them and parents were equally confused. Some corrective measures needed to be considered.

Thus was born, in 1961, the district’s Regional Office of Curriculum and Instruction. The Northern Valley Curriculum Center (NVCC), as it is commonly referred to, was tasked with improving the articulation of instructional programs among the elementary districts and the regional high school district. The goal was simple, at least in theory. If the seven elementary districts adopted similar curricular approaches, had similar standards, and a more or less consistent set of expectations, students beginning ninth grade would be more uniformly prepared and teachers could focus more on the most important and relevant curriculum content.

The Northern Valley Regional schools function as a consortium of eight school districts. The high school district has two high schools — Northern Valley Demarest H.S. and Northern Valley Old Tappan H.S. Students come to one of these high schools from seven pre-K-8 districts — Closter, Demarest, Harrington Park, Haworth, Northvale, Norwood, and Old Tappan.

The Northern Valley Regional High School District serves as the LEA for the Office of Curriculum and Instruction. Personnel of the Office of Curriculum and Instruction include the Director of Curriculum and Instruction and Supervisor of Staff Development, two part-time staff developers, an administrative secretary, a part-time associate secretary, and more than 50 consultants. The eight school districts served by the NVCC include 54 school board members, 50 administrators, 16 supervisors, over 850 teachers, and more than 7,000 students in 16 buildings. It is a large operation.

While the central focus of the NVCC was originally curriculum development, particularly in terms of consistency, the office has grown to encompass staff development, assessment, and educational planning, as well as the administration, coordination, and supervision of regional projects and encouraging overall K-12 communication and articulation.

This arrangement has provided the Northern Valley Regional districts with added benefits, beyond the initial goal of making sure that all incoming ninth-graders have been exposed to the same curriculum. Several of the elementary districts are small districts with fewer than 500 students. As part of a cohesive professional development community, however, teachers from those small districts have opportunities to learn from a variety of professionals who do the same job in other districts. The pool of potential experts in various subjects is also expanded. A superintendent of one smaller district has publicly said, “We’re small but we are mighty because we are part of this larger group that allows us to do things we could not have done by ourselves.”

Funding, always an issue, is approached in three ways: through a portion of the ESEA grants that the NVCC itself applies for as a consortium on behalf of each district; through a direct contribution from each district, based on their number of students; and through fees that outside districts pay for staff to attend professional development workshops.

Curriculum Development Curriculum guides for the region are developed and revised by teacher committees chaired by the Director of Curriculum and Instruction. The committees typically consist of about 25 teachers, and all districts and grade levels are represented on each committee. The guides, which are revised on a rolling basis over a five-year cycle, are designed to comply with the New Jersey Student Learning Standards. Each curriculum guide is developed after a research phase and thoughtful review and discussion by the particular curriculum committee. In addition to the regional curriculum guides, high school courses of study are also developed and periodically revised with the assistance of the NVCC.

Following the revision process by the curriculum committee, a recommended curriculum guide is reviewed by all of the regional organizations: faculty representatives for all schools, the Northern Valley Principals Association (NVPA) and the Northern Valley Education Consortium (NVEC), which includes all district superintendents. When review by these organizations is completed, the guide is submitted to each local board of education for adoption. Professional development opportunities are incorporated to help assure successful curriculum implementation.

Staff Development Program The Northern Valley Schools Staff Development Program, established in 1984, was designed to increase student learning and personal growth by enhancing the professional skills of educators. Northern Valley Regional High Schools and the seven elementary school districts have sponsored this professional development effort to meet regional needs and interests and to help foster continuous growth. About 900 teachers, administrators, and office professionals from elementary and secondary schools in the region, as well as many from approximately 15 other neighboring school districts, participate annually in professional learning workshops arranged by the Office of Curriculum and Instruction. These full-day workshops are designed to meet the needs and interests of teachers, administrators, office professionals, and other staff. Workshops blend research and theory with practical instructional strategies and provide follow-up activities such as classroom visits, mentoring, and review sessions.

The training course calendar for the subsequent school year is developed beginning in January, largely by the Supervisor of Staff Development. Courses are regularly introduced to facilitate new initiatives, new courses or revisions to the curriculum. The teachers are surveyed to ascertain learning needs; building principals and administrators are queried as to the staff learning needs. Teachers can also propose opportunities to share strengths and grow professionally. Ultimately, the district superintendents collectively approve the proposed course catalog, which is made available in early spring.

District teachers and staff members are then given the opportunity to attend two workshops over the course of the school year. If there are courses that do not attract sufficient registrants (typically fewer than 10) those classes are cancelled.

The overwhelming majority of presenters are district staff members; of about 60 presenters each year; approximately 50 are faculty and staff. Before becoming a presenter, teachers attend a class, led by the Director of Curriculum and Instruction: “Designing Professional Development for Adult Learners.” While the teachers are gifted and experienced in teaching children, there are differences in teaching adults, and it is important that instructors be familiar with proven strategies in order to assure high-quality professional development. Teacher-presenters are compensated for teaching workshops; however it is important to note that payment is for the course preparation and development time, and furthermore if the same teacher presents the same program in subsequent years, the compensation is less.

There is a wide range of engaging programs in the 2019-2020 course catalog. Included among the 118 programs are sessions such as: “Asking Better Questions”; “Effective Homework: What, How and Why?”; “Strategies and Tools for Student Engagement”; “Using Data to Drive Instruction”; “Dyslexia 101”; “Nonfiction Notice & Note: Strategies for Nonfiction Reading Instruction”; “Deepening Mathematical Practice in the Pre-K-2 Classroom”; “Addressing Challenging Student Behaviors: A Path to Successful Intervention”; and “Fill Your Toolbox! Ideas for the World Language Classroom.”

Once staff members from the eight districts have registered for the workshops, registration is open to educators from outside districts, at a cost of $200 per course. To date, for the 2019-2020 school year, 14 neighboring districts are participating at various levels and that number typically grows through the year. During the 2018-2019 school year, teachers from 22 neighboring districts took part in Northern Valley’s professional development programs.

The Office of Curriculum and Learning also conducts new teacher orientation and development through a three-year Professional Learning Academy. First-year teachers begin with a three-day workshop in August, which includes the introduction and review of best practice instructional skills and the effective implementation of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards, the development of student growth objectives, and an introduction to working effectively with minority populations in varying categories. During the school year, the newly hired teachers will attend three additional full-day workshops (focused training on instructional skills as well as classroom leadership and management) and will receive a minimum of two non-evaluative instructional coaching observations, with follow-up conversations.

In years two and three of their educational journey at Northern Valley, educators continue their professional learning experience. In year two, all attend three full-day workshops, including one on classroom assessment. The third year provides further collaboration around key instructional strategies and practices. The importance of differentiated instruction, as well as effective questioning, is a primary focus. Additionally, teachers engage in an independent action research project across the school year. The findings of this research are shared in the spring, as teachers celebrate their graduation from this program. The Professional Learning Academy is key to supporting new teachers during difficult early years of their career, and helping to build the foundation for teaching excellence.

Financial Grants Over the years, the NVCC has been instrumental in obtaining and coordinating substantial federal and state grants. These have recently supported the three-year Learning and Leading project, a program that supports personalized goal setting and coaching for administrators. Leaning Forward, in awarding a National Team Grant to NVCC, was pivotal in providing this opportunity.  In addition, the office coordinates the ESEA Consolidated Grant funds for all participating consortium districts. These funds include supports that are provided under Titles IIA, III, III-Immigrant and IV.

Program Assessment The Office of Curriculum and Instruction coordinates testing programs for schools in the region.  Several criterion-referenced tests (CRTs) — tests typically used to assist educators in diagnosing gaps in learning and/or to provide additional data points in making student placement decisions — in a variety of content areas are developed and coordinated by the office.

Teacher representatives from all participating districts design the CRTs, which are produced, administered and scored through the NVCC. Currently, CRTs are given once a year, in a variety of content areas at the middle school level. A report of results is provided to district personnel soon after each assessment and at the year’s end. Superintendents are provided a full report for their review and as a tool to aid in district analysis protocols.

Northern Valley’s Curriculum Center remains focused on increasing student achievement in each of the eight districts it serves through this shared service, a service that builds skills, knowledge, leadership and collaboration among the staff. The districts have been commended by the New Jersey State Department of Education for their cooperative efforts to strengthen curriculum and instruction and by the New Jersey Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (NJASCD) and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) for their work in the area of professional development.

For more on the Northern Valley Office of Curriculum and Learning, go to the website.

Kathleen O’Flynn is the Northern Valley Regional High School Consortium Director of Curriculum and Instruction; she is also a member, and the former president of the Hillsdale Board of Education.