Writing curriculum often involves changing the culture of a school. By its very nature, change can be uncertain and unsettling. Common responses to change might include, “Why are we doing this?” “You want me to do what?”  “I already put in extra hours; I cannot do anymore than what I’m already doing.”  These concerns on the part of teachers are valid, yet can be barriers to curriculum change.

There is no perfect solution to helping teachers change their practices, but one thing is certain, the support that an administrative team provides for its teaching staff can make the difference between sustainable change and curriculum corruption.

Creating Curriculum that Supports the Unique Needs of Your School or District

Our district, Montgomery County Juvenile Court (MCJC) Schools, is no exception to these curriculum writing hurdles. MCJC schools are comprised of three facilities housed within the Court. Students come to each facility based on their court sentencing, and each facility has its own purpose and intended outcomes for students in terms of treatment and recovery. However, in recent years, our schools have tried to establish common goals for all students.

Previous curriculum offerings included online credit recovery courses mixed with some direct-instruction provided by teachers in the classrooms. The district did not have common curriculum practices. In the last three years, we have worked diligently to align district practices. Some of our efforts have included implementing the use of diagnostic reading and math assessments, training teachers on Response to Instruction (RtI) methods and processes, changing our evaluation system from that of a generic Court evaluation to the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System in order to provide teachers with meaningful feedback.

Pioneering District Curriculum for a Juvenile Court System

Most recently, our efforts have included mapping a district curriculum. According to research, most juvenile court systems do not hire their own teachers or use their own curriculum. In fact, many courts rely on local school districts to provide teachers and curriculum or use online credit recovery systems to provide student instruction. There are many reasons for this. First, juvenile systems experience tremendous turnover of students; many students are in and out within a few days. Those who stay longer are often in the system for less than a school year.

Other challenges include teaching multi-age classrooms in which students’ grade level and course placements vary, most students are significantly deficient in basic academic skills, students often have complex mental health and behavioral needs, and many students have missed years of instruction due to lack of school attendance. Research cites that around 33% of students in incarceration have IEPs; our data shows that our numbers have been close 60% of the population—this is compared to 12% of the population that exists in most traditional school settings. What we know is that online credit recovery courses do not meet the intense needs of most of our students, so we need to find alternative solutions.

Mapping a curriculum to meet the critical and unique needs of these students is not met without challenges. We are pioneering this venture, and so serious conversation and deliberation surrounding curriculum has taken place over the last year. Mostly the questions of “How are we going to do this?  What is this going to look like?” have dominated the conversation. Some teachers are excited to be the pioneers in uncharted territory; others are feeling like they are sitting at the back of the wagon and hoping they don’t fall off.

What we have found is that teachers need a tremendous amount of support from an organized and supportive leadership team to lead the wagon train to the Curriculum Promised Land.

Identifying the Root Cause: Barriers to Change

Manage Response Chart

Change Matrix


Addressing Common Problems

Lack of Vision and Strategy
  • Establishing a mission and vision by collecting teacher input
  • Involving teachers in the curriculum writing process
  • Answering the curriculum question of “Why should we map?” during a district professional development
  • Creating goals within subject area departments and professional learning communities
  • Setting a curriculum plan with clearly established goals and objectives for teachers and leadership
  • Realigned professional development to focus on curriculum goals

MCJC Year One Curriculum Plan

 Lack of Resources (Time)
  • Eliminating all other district initiatives that were ill-timed or misplaced
  • Carved out time in the schedule to meet as departments
  • Began using Atlas the hub of communication on curriculum to save time and increase transparency. This includes documenting meeting minutes and providing links to professional development resources.

Meeting Minutes Template

Lack of Skills
  • The district is currently using book studies about Understanding by Design to train leadership and department co-chairs on effective curriculum design. All of the information about our book studies is housed in our Atlas system for easy communication and transparency.

Interested in learning more about developing a sustainable curriculum process? Join us at our Leadership Institute!

Amie Burr is the Curriculum and Instruction Coordinator with Montgomery County Juvenile Court Schools in Dayton, Ohio.  She holds a bachelor’s degree in middle school education, with concentrations in social studies and language arts, from the University of Dayton. Currently, she is earning her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Ohio Dominican University.

Burr has 11 years of experience in teaching at-risk youth.  She began her career teaching middle and high school English at a charter school in Michigan.  Family brought her back to Ohio in 2010 where she spent several years teaching middle school language arts at one of Dayton’s urban Catholic schools.

In 2014 Burr came to Montgomery County Juvenile Court schools as an English teacher at the Center for Adolescent Services.  She spent 18 months in the role of classroom instructor before her promotion to the Curriculum and Instruction Coordinator for the district.

Working with at-risk youth presents educators with unique challenges and opportunities.  Incarcerated youth are a chronically underserved population.  These experiences have spurred her to develop a curriculum process that best suits the needs of the juvenile corrections population.

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