The History of Core Knowledge at the Morse School

The Morse School was first established in 1892 and for over 80 years held a solid reputation in the community as a place where children received a strong academic foundation within a welcoming school filled with hope and pride. In 1980 the Cambridge School Committee voted to desegregate the schools by moving away from a neighborhood schools model. During the late 1980’s, the Morse School was no longer one of the highly chosen schools for incoming Kindergarten families. At the time, there were two newer Cambridge Public Schools in close proximity and both were offering alternative education models that were more appealing to families than the Morse School program which was viewed as being formal, traditional and not as progressive.

By 1990, the low enrollment rates resulted in the school district looking to merge the Morse School with one of the newer CPSD programs. It was at this point that Principal James Coady, a teacher, John Kelleher and a committed group of parents, began researching to find a curriculum or program that would rejuvenate both the students and the staff and possibly save the school. Upon close examination, they discovered the Core Knowledge Program which used a very specific sequence for delivering curriculum content. The Core Knowledge movement was based on the book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, published in 1987 and then further developed in the book The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, published in 1996, both written by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

If adopted, the Core Knowledge scope and sequence would provide a systematic sequence of grade-specific content that could be taught consistently year after year. Additionally, the core content was organized to spiral through the grade levels, becoming more sophisticated and detailed in each successive grade. Such planned progression would create valuable frames of reference that would facilitate in-depth learning and understanding. In addition, the very strong emphasis on the visual and performing arts as well as the exposure to world geography, various world cultures and world religions would be well received at the Morse.

In the fall of 1991 Principal Coady, working with a few Kindergarten and first grade teachers, explored the concept of developing a curriculum using the Core Knowledge scope and sequence and then presented it to other teachers and to families. The staff, lead by Principal Coady and with strong parent support, decided to approach the Cambridge School committee for permission to adopt the Core Knowledge Program. In February of 1992, permission was granted, by the Cambridge School Committee, for the Morse School to proceed with this endeavor.

Excited for the change, the staff at the Morse decided to start two components of the Core Knowledge scope and sequence in March of 1992. The first components they implemented were Literacy and World History. Over that summer, a cross-grade level team of staff, worked to figure out how to incorporate Core Knowledge at age appropriate levels in all content areas for the start of the next school year. In September of 1992, the Morse School, Kindergarten through 8th grade classrooms began using the new scope and sequence. Core Knowledge rejuvenated the school, the staff and the families and the enrollment begin to rise by the start of the school year in 1993. The Morse was no longer just a traditional school it was a progressive traditional school and the Morse School with the Core Knowledge program was being talked about around the city as a good choice for a child’s education!

Continuing for a over a decade, the Morse School and the Core Knowledge scope and sequence were synonymous with a solid education and the reputation of the school was strong which increased enrollment at the school. In the early 2000’s, educational changes at both the national and the state levels began to compete with the scope and sequence of the Core Knowledge program. New standards in education were being developed as the National Common Core Standards were being adopted. At the state level, new curriculum frameworks were being written for each of the curriculum content areas and the Cambridge School District began to make changes to reflect those requirements. The challenge for the Morse School staff became how to retain some of the rich content in the Core Knowledge scope and sequence while successfully aligning at each grade level the national, state and the district requirements.

By 2010 the amount of content following the Core Knowledge scope and sequence by the Morse School teachers had reduced from 60% to less than 30%. The primary grades had retained the majority of the scope and sequence. However, it was becoming harder and harder to maintain alignment from the 2nd grade on into the later grades. In 2015, the Morse School Mission statement was rewritten to reflect the changes in the shift from following the Core Knowledge scope and sequence and reads the following way: “We follow curriculum that meets the school district requirements, is aligned with both the Massachusetts State Frameworks and the Common Core Standards and is infused with tenets from the Core Knowledge scope and sequence.”

The identity of the Morse School for close to 25 years was connected to Core Knowledge. It revitalized the school and enriched the academic focus. One of the main beliefs of Core Knowledge was the idea of building on background knowledge and that continues to be of significant importance. Many grade levels continue to read the classic literature that Core Knowledge brought to our school as well as retaining an emphasis on studying poetry and writing poetry throughout the grade levels. One other area that sets the Morse apart from many of the other Cambridge elementary schools are the rich, deep connections to the Visual and Performing Arts. Almost every student at the Morse School receives either additional art or music time in their schedule every week and studying world culture and world language are priorities in educating Morse students today.

The Morse School historically reinvented itself in 1992 and has continued to evolve today with Core Knowledge embedded in the fabric of the school. While some of the curriculum content at specific grade levels may have changed, there are still many Core Knowledge traditions that are highly valued and important to the school identity and to the whole school community. The monthly Core Virtues, the Apple of the Week and the Coady Award are keys components in the identity of the school. The Morse School is a stronger educational institution by having Core Knowledge as part of its history. As the school continues to evolve and changes in the years ahead, it is imperative that part of this history be preserved.

(Edited by Mary Gallant and Pat Beggy, 2017)
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