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Pine Lake Elementary (Miami, FL)

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A Model of Innovation in Miami-Dade County Public Schools

The hallways are abuzz with excitement every day at Pine Lake Elementary School, where students are actively engaged in the school’s new innovative STEM magnet program focused on botany and zoology. A year in, the school is seeing dramatic changes in school climate and culture.

Experiential Learning Attracts Hands-On Partners and Revives Student Interest


The magnet program, made possible through a U.S. Education Department Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant, aims to help students see themselves as forward-thinking, action-oriented global citizens and stewards of the environment. The project-based learning (PBL) curriculum provides students with experiences that emphasize high-level, research-based inquiry, resulting in engaging, real-world learning through partnerships with Zoo Miami, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, the Everglades National Park, and Discovery Education.

The program revitalized the school, which had been experiencing a downward trend in enrollment, student achievement, and community support over the previous five years. “The magnet program has served to reinvigorate curriculum focus, student achievement, and community involvement,” said Curriculum Support Specialist Marta de Tuya.

One year into the program, students are studying animals at Zoo Miami, examining diverse plant life at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, and experiencing one of the world’s most unique habitats at Everglades National Park.

“Project-based learning is the only way to go. It appeals to all students,” said de Tuya. “The kids are always excited when they get to class, and they’re disappointed if they miss a site visit.”

STEM Support for Both Students and Teachers

When you’re doing these kinds of changes in a school, it’s a change for everybody on the staff… for them to all buy in, understand the vision, and contribute to it, you don’t see that kind of thing very often

In the late summer of 2018, Pine Lake Elementary partnered with Discovery Education to support teachers in cultivating engaging, rigorous, inquiry-based learning experiences for their students.

A cohort of educators were selected to work in partnership with Discovery Education through a multi-year professional growth program focused on PBL, a student-centered pedagogy that aims to deepen learning through active, dynamic learning experiences in which students solve real-world problems. The partnership included professional development to support teachers with STEM content and methodology, job-embedded professional coaching for more individualized support, and a STEM Family Night to engage and ignite the entire school community. The partnership also included access to a suite of Discovery Education digital curriculum and content tools—Discovery Education Experience and STEM Connect—for the duration of the 2018-19 school year.

The professional learning sessions focused on building a student-centered, STEM classroom using Discovery Education Experience and STEM Connect instructional resources designed to support transdisciplinary learning experiences. Teachers who participated in the session engaged in collaborative activities focused on how to integrate 21st-century skills with real-world challenges and how to inspire students to become solution seekers. The immersive sessions featured instructional strategies, model lessons, and collaborative lesson planning.

Dr. Evonne Alvarez, District Director of School Choice and Parental Options, said the implementation of PBL was a catalyst for change among both teachers and students.

“The [professional development] from Discovery Education has been more than influential,” said Dr. Alvarez. “Teachers have learned how to plan, align standards, and the project-based learning knowledge they acquired prepared them for that next tier of strategic work with students.”

Dr. Robert Strickland, Administrative Director of School Choice and Parental Options at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said the results were encouraging, and they are hoping to see them instituted at other schools.

“When you’re doing these kinds of changes in a school, it’s a change for everybody on the staff, not just the teachers. And for them to all buy in, understand the vision, and contribute to it, you don’t see that kind of thing very often,” he said.

Cultivating Community Collaboration

The shift in school culture and curriculum was accompanied by a comprehensive re-branding and community outreach campaign that highlighted the program’s thematic connection to a highly regarded magnet high school program in the county, BioTECH @ Richmond Heights 9-12.

The STEM Family Night hosted by Discovery Education made a huge splash—the parents were so excited we couldn’t get them to leave

“One of the first challenges that emerged in rallying the community was getting the parents and community members to truly believe in this new vision of learning,” said Dr. Strickland. “We changed the branding, the mascot, to something larger than life. We did community outreach, hosted local events, and brought the message to life on social media. In all of these efforts, we were trying to help the community see that this is part of a powerful, thematic feeder pattern. BioTECH has become very well known in the community for its conservation biology studies, and parents responded very well to knowing there’s a solid curriculum track to lead their kids to that school.”

As part of these efforts, Discovery Education—in collaboration with Pine Lake Elementary staff—hosted a STEM Family Night to bring the new approach to learning to life for the community.

“The STEM Family Night hosted by Discovery Education made a huge splash. The parents were so excited we couldn’t get them to leave. It has really brought everybody together,” said de Tuya. “I think Discovery Education played a critical role in getting buy-in from the community to be part of this new hands-on learning approach.”

Nothing but Optimism for the Future of STEM

While it is too early to draw any conclusions about the impact of the new curriculum on student achievement, the school did see a noticeable one-year uptick in fifth grade science Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) scores.

“Proficiency in the science FSA in prior years fluctuated a bit, but this past year there were dramatic gains,” noted Dr. Alvarez. “We saw fifth-grade student performance jump from 27 percent [in 2018] to 65 percent proficiency [in 2019].”

A year into the new program, the Pine Lake Elementary School community is energized. “These fresh learning opportunities have scattered the gloom around students’ expectations of what school is all about,” said Surey Rios, the magnet content teacher responsible for botany and zoology. “The hands-on learning makes them fearless, and when you’re fearless, it’s okay to be curious. That’s the first step to being a scientist.”