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Full STEAM Ahead: How Fort Mill Schools Instills Engagement and Passion

Sometimes being on top isn’t enough.

In 2017, Fort Mill School District in South Carolina became the top-rated district in the state, garnering national acclaim for its students’ academic achievements, and being named to The College Board’s AP District Honor Roll. But the district’s leaders knew they could reach even greater heights. The challenge was – how can they get there?

When it underwent its AdvancED accreditation in 2017, the district had every right to expect great results. So when officials got the accreditation report back, they were surprised to find one small note of discord: Student engagement, while satisfactory, was lower than administrators wanted.

“It was not where we wanted to be as compared to our normally high achievement results,” says Marty McGinn, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and human resources.

At the time, district officials were in the process of reexamining their curriculum, mostly to make sure students were college and career ready according to the state’s Profile of the Graduate.

When officials considered the engagement of their students, as well as the recognition that various schools were offering different STEM activities, only one choice addressed all these issues. The choice—to increase offerings in STEAM topics—was quickly agreed upon. STEAM refers to the basic STEM topics, science, technology, engineering, and math, with the arts included.

But even administrators couldn’t have guessed how well the changes would be accepted both inside and outside their classrooms. In just the first year of the district’s shift in focus, the effort has been well received by students, the school board, and especially teachers.

“We had a lot of STEAM activities going on here and there,” says McGinn of the district’s 16 schools. “But we’re a growing district, and we needed something that could bring everyone to the table.”

BUILDING STEAM

After mapping where district leaders knew they needed to be, they had to decide how to get there, which meant weighing the options for programs to implement and who could help them through this transition. In April 2017, the leaders hosted a strategic planning session.

To provide some guidance, Fort Mill’s leaders invited Cindy Moss, vice president of global STEM initiatives at Discovery Education, to speak with school and district leaders, along with students. Moss envisioned a classroom ecosystem where all teachers and students were immersed in STEM.

“Schools need to provide experiences that allow students to become ‘glocal,’” said Moss. “They should walk outside their school to find local problems and be able to see how their local problems fit into the global scheme of things. Adults should stop just dispensing knowledge and allow students to solve real-world problems.”

Chad Allen, the district’s STEM coordinator, said Moss’ passion filled the room with energy. It became the ignition for their STEAM engine.

“After she spoke, our students said, ‘We need our teachers to teach like that,’” said Allen. “We did not expect that strong of a reaction from our students, but they were immediately engaged.”

MANAGING RAPID GROWTH

Fort Mill’s move to emphasize STEAM topics districtwide was initially complicated by the district’s tremendous growth. In just 15 years, the district, located in a town of 50 square miles, has grown from fewer than 6,000 students to more than 15,000. In that time, two new high schools were opened, and the district hired new teachers to compensate for the growth in student population.

Despite this growth spurt, these sudden changes haven’t had a negative impact on student achievement. Fort Mill remains the top-performing district in South Carolina, with a graduation rate of 94 percent—12 percentage points higher than the state average. Also, 85 percent of its graduates went on to a two- or four-year college, well above the state’s average rate of 71 percent.

But these changes did emphasize for district leaders the need for a unified curriculum, said McGinn. Redistricting has shuffled both students and teachers to different schools, so streamlining the curriculum made it easier for both groups to change addresses without losing ground.

“Our superintendent continues to say, ‘It doesn’t matter which school you go to in Fort Mill—they are all equally excellent,’” said McGinn.

SEEING STEAM IN ACTION

In order to better formulate their goals, Fort Mill officials visited Santa Rosa County District Schools in Florida to see how it integrates STEAM activities into its everyday education.

In recent years, Santa Rosa has emerged as an international leader in STEAM education. Its students have continued to show promise after embarking in 2015 on a five-year strategic partnership with Discovery Education called STEAM Innovate!, where educators receive intensive professional learning and job-embedded coaching. Santa Rosa’s classrooms have become STEAM-infused learning environments, with lessons that nurture student achievement and critical 21st-century learning skills.

“We were struck by the common language and the common vision,” McGinn says. “Everybody moves in the same direction, from the district office to the classroom. It inspired us.”

Now, Fort Mill was moving with purpose toward a STEAM model, but still had some hills to climb. Leaders knew that they would need a strong professional development basis from which to launch into STEAM, but the district’s central office is slim.

“We believe in funding our schools, but we simply don’t have the capacity to do something like districtwide PD all by ourselves. So we had to find a great solution,” said Allen.

BUILDING A CORPS OF TEACHER LEADERS

Fort Mill partnered with Discovery Education’s STEAM Leader Corps, a comprehensive program that helps scale digital and instructional leadership in school districts. Schools in Fort Mill were already using the company’s Science Techbook digital textbook, and it plans to expand into Discovery Education STEM Connect in the future.

The district’s partnership with Discovery Education has been powerful and unique, said Allen, adding that it was unlike any of his previous experiences with education service providers.

“Discovery Education’s people have been right alongside us every step of the way.

“They’ve invested themselves in the community, they talk to parents at PTO meetings, and they’re involved in planning and designing posters—it’s almost like they work for the district,” said Allen.

Through the Leader Corps, Fort Mill’s educators are being prepared for effective STEAM instruction and establishing a team of teacher leaders that will help drive systemwide change.

“Having a clear professional development structure for implementing STEAM is important to focus our efforts to achieve our goals,” said McGinn. “It also fosters communication and collaboration within and between our schools.”

Initially, the district sought volunteers to start, asking for eight teachers at its high schools and four at each middle and elementary school. McGinn wasn’t sure that many teachers would be interested, But the opposite proved true. More teachers applied than they could immediately use. While those not chosen were disappointed, the district has included them on trips to conferences and other schools to see STEAM activities in person to prime them for the future.

The training took a strategic approach, beginning with principals, says McGinn.

“Principal leadership is so vital. If the administration doesn’t understand what teachers need, such as time for planning and collaborating, it’s hard to support them,” she said.

Now, one year into the four-year STEAM Leader Corps program, teachers are beginning to showcase the effects of their training, said Allen.

He can tell teachers are embracing the new methods when he hears them discussing STEAM concepts in side conversations in the hallways. They’re also active on their own Twitter hashtag, #FM21STEAM where they regularly share their accomplishments.

“Some of those who came out of this process surprised us, and they’re surprising themselves,” he said. “These teachers are starting to demonstrate their skills as leaders. They’re stepping up and responding to the extra autonomy they’re being given.”

These teachers will lead model classrooms for others, organically growing the STEAM initiative internally throughout the district. And more leaders are being added each year.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but it’s exciting work,” McGinn said.

WHAT STEAM LOOKS LIKE IN FORT MILL SCHOOLS

Teachers are learning how to create project-based learning lessons that meet the district’s standards, she says. Once teachers immerse themselves in using units from STEM Connect, they will better understand how to create their own interactive units.

In classrooms throughout the district, a combination of project-based learning and student-centered teaching can be seen in full practice. In place of stand-and-deliver instruction, students are empowered to be at the core of their classrooms, leading their own explorations in learning.

“We’ve seen the level of student engagement increase in our schools. They’re doing more rigorous work, and there is more creativity on display,” said Allen. “We had 400 people show up for one of our student-led district art shows recently. That was huge for them.”

Also emerging are STEAM-based lessons grounded in real-world issues. Springfield Middle School students embarked on a service-based learning exercise recently while studying what life is like for those living in refugee camps. To provide context for the lesson, they left the classroom behind and went outdoors.

They crossed a river, and using the limited materials they’d carried with them, built their own tents and spent some time in the wilderness.

They experienced a small taste of the life of those without homes of their own. Beyond the hands-on learning experience, it’s an exercise in communicating the power of compassion, said Allen.

“The definition of caring comes from understanding someone else’s perspective. When you design solutions, you’re trying to think of how people will experience that,” said Allen.

“I think giving kids a firsthand account of life experiences really helps them understand what it is they’re learning.”

Another major shift is on the teacher’s side of things. They’re encouraged to experiment with new ideas in the classroom and not be afraid of failure.

“If something goes bad, or fails, it’s okay. We’re giving them the freedom to explore. It’s allowed us to open our minds and be more intuitive about how we teach our kids,” said Allen.

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How Schools Are Bridging the Coding Gender Gap

Turning girls onto computers and coding requires strong leadership, said Superintendent Dr. Kristine Gilmore of the D.C. Everest School District in Wisconsin.

Computer science classes have long been the domain of boys. While girls and boys are now equally represented in advanced science and math classes, girls still are not flocking to classes like Programming in JAVA or Mobile App Development. With the growing need for computer scientists in the workforce, school leaders are trying to convince girls that these classes aren’t just boys’ clubs.

As superintendent of D.C. Everest Schools in Wisconsin, Dr. Kristine Gilmore has led a vibrant campaign to conquer the gender gap in STEAM courses at her schools.

“Things don’t happen by chance,” said Gilmore. “You have to ask, ‘Do all kids have opportunities?’ As a superintendent, my job is to remove barriers for kids.”

Girls only made up about one-fifth of all AP students in computer science in 2013, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, even though girls are equally likely to take the science and math AP exam. This gender gap continues into college. In 2015, only 18 percent of all computer science college degrees in the country went to women.

This gap puts girls at a distinct workforce disadvantage in an industry on track to explode with opportunities. According to ComputerScience.org, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth of 15-20 percent in computer science jobs between 2012 and 2022. By 2020, there will be only 400,000 students. With those real-world opportunities, it is important to open more students — both boys and girls — to the pathways that coding skills could provide.

Why Girls Don’t Feel They Belong in Coding

It is somewhat puzzling that girls are comfortable calculating derivatives in calculus classes or studying harmonic motion in physics, but tend to balk when confronted with rows of computer terminals. A variety of factors are behind the computer science gender gap, according to a 2010 report by the American Association of University Women, including the geeky-guy stereotype, which is reinforced through popular media. Teenage girls think that computer classes are filled with skinny guys with bad social skills, like the characters on the television show “The Big Bang Theory”, and don’t feel comfortable stepping into that environment.

Researchers from the University of Washington found that simply redecorating the classroom might bust through that stereotype barrier. Allison Master, Sapna Cheryan, and Andrew N. Meltzoff reported in the Journal of Educational Psychology in 2015 that girls were three times more likely to say that they would sign up for a computer science class in rooms that were decorated with nature posters, lamps, and plants, rather than rooms that contained Star Trek posters and science fiction books.

“When girls felt that they belonged in the environment, they became more interested in taking the course,” according to the article.

Learning from female computer teachers, particularly during the middle school years when interest in computers peaks for many girls, may also hold the key to increasing gender equity, according to research by Accenture and Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization that runs summer immersion programs for girls across the country. Developing a positive “experience of computing in their junior high years means that girls are 18% more likely to show interest in computing throughout their high school and college years,” according to the Accenture research.

Shaping Coding Experiences for Girls

Getting girls in the classroom is a focus for several tech-forward school districts across the country. Dr. Michael Lubelfeld, the superintendent of Deerfield Public Schools in Illinois, and a member of AASA’s Digital Consortium, has acquired a reputation as a technology innovator. And this is a topic he is passionate about. Lubelfeld has successfully increased the number of girls in computer science, garnering a lot of attention for his school district.

Superintendent Dr. Mike Lubelfeld believes heightened community engagement, school board support, an more female mentors could help resolve the gender gap challenge.

He’s found that a combination of community involvement, the presence of female mentors, and support from the school board are critical to changing mindsets. He also believes that immersing both boys and girls in computer science at an early age, in all subjects, is extremely important to overcome the gender gap. His district is even discovering new ways of bringing coding into English classes.

He also pointed to the success of a lunchtime learning experience, “STEM for Girls,” which was run by mothers from the community with careers in computer science and engineering. Over 100 elementary school girls learned how to build robots, performed basic coding, and completed hands-on, creative experiments using electricity and magnetism.

Beyond pulling girls into STEM, the program also served as a catalyst for a community-funded, $1.5 million STEM program in the school district’s libraries and as a factor in the selection of an elementary and middle school named Blue Ribbon Schools in 2016.

Like Lubelfeld, Superintendent Gilmore said that her district worked to bring girls into computer science by starting young and teaching computers across the curriculum.

“We’ve tried to think about it across more than one course,” she said. “We are trying to make it embedded in what we do, rather than being a separate pull out.”

D.C. Everest’s students are exposed to coding experiences even as early as kindergarten, using programs such as Scratch, and in unique learning environments like Maker Spaces, enrichment summer school programs, and during after-school activities like Lego Robotics clubs.

She wants girls to recognize that game design doesn’t just have to be for boys. Her district isn’t putting together clubs or classes that are exclusively for girls, because they want their programs to be open to all students, including students who are English  Language learners in her district.

“Girls play video games, too. Look at the success of Minecraft and Candy Crush Saga. We don’t have to create barriers,” said Gilmore.

“I don’t want to just destigmatize computer science for girls. I want to destigmatize STEAM for all kids.”

Tina Plummer, an assistant superintendent at the Mehlville School District in St. Louis, has worked to improve the computer science gender gap. Plummer and her district partnered with Discovery Education to reach girls when they were young, advocating to form connections with the community, and provide girls with role models.

“Start young, and give them opportunity,” said Plummer.

Mehlville’s schools also reached girls by offering them a girls-only event, “Breakfast with the Experts,” to showcase their various STEM courses and to introduce them to women in the community with careers in engineering, neurobiology, and computer programming.

There are signs of progress. More girls took the AP computer science exam in 2016 than ever before. In 2015, 22 percent of all test takers were girls; in 2016, 23 percent were girls. The College Board also reported that eight states had fewer than ten girls who took the test.

Clearly, more work is needed to get girls coding. Innovations from tech-forward districts like Deerfield, D.C. Everest, and Mehlville can help guide other school districts in their efforts to shift stereotypes.

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How St. Vrain Valley Schools Started a STEM Revolution

Eight years ago, St. Vrain Valley Schools in Colorado started a STEM revolution. Today, its students, with projects that stretch from building robots to helping save an endangered species of frog, are reaping the benefits. We are proud to showcase this district’s transformation with an in-depth report that covers each major milestone on a decade-long journey to empower students.

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Introduction

St. Vrain Valley Schools in Colorado is on a roll. In just under a decade, the district of 32,000 students has transformed itself through a variety of initiatives to provide students with a hands-on education that sets them up for success well beyond the halls of their schools.

During this time, the district launched an Innovation Center, where students use their STEM knowledge in real-world projects; it opened a P-TECH school that allows students to earn an associate’s degree and high school diploma in six years; it has pulled in more than $20 million in national and state grants for a variety of programs; and its list of public–private partnerships have expanded to encompass national companies such as Lockheed Martin, Apple, and IBM. If that’s not enough, the district, located about 35 miles north of Denver, has netted nearly 90 awards for its academic programs in the past five years, and it regularly hosts visitors from other school districts and corporations.

While outside recognition is great, St. Vrain has also garnered the approval of the 13 communities that comprise the district. Last year, voters overwhelmingly approved the district’s financial plan, agreeing to a $260 million bond that will allow the district to build four new schools while expanding the footprint of another 29 schools—no small feat for a school district in Colorado, where the purse strings are tightly controlled by the state. Parents effectively bought into the process of transforming the district to help raise their children to new heights.

All of these investments are coming online just in time, as the district is adding 800 new students each year, making it one of the fastest-growing school districts in the state.

The road to the district’s success began about a decade ago. Examining the steps district leaders took reveals how administrators made deep cuts in legacy resources to invest in new avenues, and launched new innovations, ensuring improvements were instituted district-wide instead of just school by school, while always continuing to push for improvements.

Superintendent Dr. Don Haddad with St. Vrain elementary students.

“Our systematic approach is very unique,” says Superintendent Dr. Don Haddad. “What we’ve done is establish a pre-K–12 system where every one of our schools is focused on the things that we know work.”

Haddad highlights the core components of St. Vrain—a district-wide 1:1 program, STEM studies that start at pre-K and run into higher education, curricula that push students to problem solve and employ critical thinking skills, a “design thinking” mindset from administrators, public–private partnerships, and effective professional learning that reinforces all these ideas.

“That’s what makes the system work. What you see as a result is systematic gain. It’s not limited to one school—it’s districtwide,” he adds.

When former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited the district’s Skyline High School in 2014, he agreed:

“This is a remarkable success story. This is how students should be learning around the country.”

Envisioning a Transformation

The district’s first move in reinventing itself was building a comprehensive plan to support a variety of programs related to 21st-century careers. The programs focused on STEM, medical and bio-sciences, international baccalaureate, aerospace, and energy, among others. The idea was to create schools of choice for students, allowing them to pursue pathways they were passionate about, which could lead to interests in college and eventually a career.

These initiatives, in concert with a plethora of programs such as music, art, and athletics, made for a strong, comprehensive direction for the district, said Haddad.

Officials created a STEM Academy at Skyline High School, one of its 10 high schools, using STEM to both engage learners and interest them in pursuing post-secondary education. The academy quickly outpaced those modest goals and set into motion a series of domino-like changes that have transformed the district into a national leader.

Eerie High School students work on assembling a drone in class.

The short timeline to prominence at St. Vrain began when the district reeled in a $3.6 million Investing in Innovation federal grant in 2010, just one year after Haddad was named superintendent. That grant helped establish the STEM center, but also led to a longer school day for at-risk students in four elementary schools and an intervention program designed to help middle school students in danger of failing math.

The improvements from those funds led to an even bigger prize when St. Vrain was one of 16 Race to the Top winners. The federal $16.6 million award allowed the district to expand its STEM studies to all the schools that feed Skyline High School and to pursue creating Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) with IBM.

Starting in 2016, St. Vrain was one of the first districts to partner with IBM on P-TECH outside of the original Brooklyn school in New York. This program offers students a chance to earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in a six-year block. The college courses are free for students, and partner IBM offers graduates interviews for jobs that pay $50,000 a year.

This work culminated in St. Vrain being named one of the 100 Future Ready school districts in the country and Haddad being named superintendent of the year in 2013 by the National Association of School Superintendents.

All this positive momentum in St. Vrain came after the district’s darkest days in 2002. That’s when a perfect storm of accounting errors, lower-than-expected revenues, and higher-than-expected expenses resulted in the district facing a $13.8 million shortfall on what was then a budget of $130 million.

With the state’s help, the district began a wide-ranging plan that included a 15 percent cut of its non-salary budget, a 45 percent slash to administrative costs, and a rollback of promised teacher and district employee raises. Teachers were supportive of the effort in order to help the district through this difficult time. The state also loaned the district $28 million and agreed to buy and lease back to the district a building for $4.8 million.

Making the Community a Partner

By 2005, things were looking better. The district was still recovering from the financial crisis, but it had implemented sound financial processes and procedures. In addition, the district received an excellence in financial reporting award from the Government Finance Officers Association.

However, the district was in need of additional local funding through a process called a mill levy override, which could only come after approval from local voters. And though the district had made strides in securing state funding, it still needed to win over locals with its vision for St. Vrain’s future.

In 2004, the district had lost a mill levy override by just 159 votes. The next year’s effort was rejected by 54 percent of voters. So when another mill levy override was suggested in 2008, the school board knew that gaining the trust of the community would require the involvement of the community. The board would not attempt another mill levy override unless they had the support of the community.

The board told parents: “If this is important, then do something about it,” recalls Laura McDonald, the parent of two St. Vrain students.

McDonald and a small group of parents accepted the challenge from the school board and launched what eventually became Grassroots St. Vrain, the leading community arm of the 2008 campaign for a $16.5 million mill levy override, which would later pass with 57 percent of the vote.

McDonald admits the group’s leaders had a “tip of the iceberg” level of knowledge about school funding when they started. But the leadership was strong, and the school district did not want to lose the community momentum. In 2009, the school district partnered with community leaders to create Leadership St. Vrain with the goal of helping community members deepen their understanding of the business of education.

Students from Indian Peaks Elementary start STEM projects at an early age.

These community members agreed to meet for three hours each month for nine months to learn about the inner workings of the school district, including who the state-level decision makers were, down to what curricula were used in classrooms. Only one of these sessions was focused on school funding, but McDonald says a subgroup of the initial Leadership St. Vrain group decided to formalize Grassroots St. Vrain into a nonprofit organization focused on school funding issues.

Just as St. Vrain was coming out its financial difficulties, the state found itself in a deficit. In 2010, Colorado ultimately decided to reduce per-pupil spending back to 2006–07 levels, cutting about $14 million from St. Vrain. The district absorbed the cut by slashing budgets 25 percent, freezing textbook adoptions, and pushing the adult basic education program outside the district’s purview.

Thanks to its community challenge during the 2008 mill levy override, and the continued community education through Leadership St. Vrain, the district had established a new partner as it tried to stabilize its funding—Grassroots St. Vrain. This nonprofit group, created by parents, is committed to advocating for school district improvements by both explaining and supporting mill levy overrides that allow the district to add funding to what the state provides.

Grassroots has become a reliable resource of facts about various school funding topics, McDonald says, giving the group lasting power in the community. Grassroots has made videos to help explain the state funding formula, local initiatives, and yes, even where marijuana tax money goes in Colorado (mostly to cover an increase in state services, with some going to school districts).

The financial uncertainty over the years actually led the district to build a more stable system. In 2012, hard work by the district and Grassroots paid off again. St. Vrain passed a $14.8 million mill levy override that gave teachers raises, maintained class sizes, and helped fund preschool for low-income students. In 2016, voters in the district easily passed a $260 million bond issue, with 59 percent of voters approving.

As of the 2015-2016 school year, St. Vrain’s general fund per-pupil expenditures were $8,584. The district’s $252 million in general fund expenditures were funded almost equally from state and local sources. Those two groups account for the majority of the district’s general fund revenues, with federal grants accounting for just one percent.

Still, McDonald says, “Relying on local mill levy overrides is not a good solution.” While St. Vrain is fortunate to have passed its last two overrides and bond issues, this isn’t possible for many other districts, because they may not have the needed political support or property tax value, she adds. That’s a big reason Grassroots St. Vrain focuses much of its work on looking at state-level solutions.

“The fact that we stabilized our funding helped us move forward with the transition,” says Greg Fieth, the district’s chief financial officer.

“We always have funding challenges, so that’s why it’s important to engage the community so that you not only limit the problem, but step over them,” says Haddad.

Targeting ‘Total Equity’

In 2009 Haddad was promoted to superintendent, and he and his team quickly realized that they were leading “a district of schools versus a school district.” Within a district that covers 411 square miles, there was a lot of inequity between the 55 schools, he remembers.

“You could go to any of our schools and you would find huge variances in programming, wide swings in technology, and disparities in the quality of the facilities,” he said.

Remedying that imbalance became a top priority for his administration. Plans were already under way to use the funds from a $189 million bond to renovate and make over the district. The superintendent insisted on achieving “total equity” in schools across the district.

The district went a step further under the leadership of Tori Teague, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Teague led an effort to reorganize curricula, eliminating the typical gaps between elementary, middle, and high school. Once this was completed, the district was ready to tackle the needed infrastructure improvements that could pave the way for the later digital transformation.

Joe McBreen became the district’s chief technology officer the same year Haddad became superintendent. He recalls that even during the district’s lean years, it invested in fiber optic networks because officials knew technology would be important to the future of the district.

But in St. Vrain, “it’s not as simple as putting in a fiber line and having it hit every school,” says Fieth. Comprising 13 communities and 411 square miles of territory means it’s necessary to work with each of the municipalities to ensure every building has access to a fiber-optic network and wireless network capability in each classroom.

Students at Falcon Tech work with industry mentors.

Going 1:1 With Technology

With finances stabilized and an infrastructure in place, the district was ready to make changes that would intensify the impact on students in its classrooms. Over four years, the district provided all students in middle school and high school with iPad minis. Elementary classrooms received five to seven tablets each.

“When it came time to look at the technology piece, it was easy to decide this was the next layer of that, and we implemented it across the board. We looked at digital curriculum because that is an easy way to implement the technology.  We really see these devices as extensions of collaboration,” said Teague.

Right from the beginning, the district made sure professional learning was a key part of any technology upgrades. “Even in the leanest budget years, we made it a priority that 20 percent of any tech investment would go toward professional development,” says Fieth.

“We were intentionally aware of avoiding the ‘bright shiny object’ syndrome,” says McBreen. “Teachers can become enthralled by the latest, greatest technology, but it’s about purpose.”

Adam Wellington, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Coal Ridge Middle School, details how the support helped teachers during those early days of integrating technology en masse. Getting the iPads three to four months before students afforded staff extra time to work with instructional tech coordinators, helping them pivot from delivering information to guiding students to finding information themselves.

Wellington’s school also holds “tech slams,” where teachers take a minute or two to share a new tool they are using in the classroom.

“It’s a very open environment, and it’s helped our staff see the benefits of what technology can do,” he adds.

Fifth-grade students program Dash and Dot robots at Longmont Estates Elementary School.

Presenting the material in a new way can boost student understanding, too. Wellington says the district’s move to use Discovery Education’s Techbook “has really changed how our students can understand our curriculum.”

As soon as the district got teachers familiar with tablets, they quickly realized that parents needed a crash course, too. “We found that parents didn’t know exactly how to get students to turn off the devices and disengage,” said Teague.

Eventually St. Vrain started a Camp iPad for parents, where students would show what they were doing with the devices. A tech newsletter was also distributed, and the district hosted technology nights at schools to orient parents to the new devices.

“I think that first year we had a lot of questions continually come up. [Now] it’s almost gotten down to zero,” Teague says.

“I think it’s critical that you’re very proactive with parents in any technology implementation. If a school district doesn’t do that, it will fail.”

Investing that time with parents made a huge difference for St. Vrain, garnering goodwill that spread beyond the scope of technology instruction, says Teague.

“What’s really cool about it is that it creates equity across the system,” she said. “For some families, they have not had any technology at home, and now all their kids have iPads. Kids can share it with parents, and families cherish it.”

Learning in the Great Outdoors

While expanding their learning horizons through a district-wide 1:1 transition, students at St. Vrain schools have also been engaged in ambitious activities outside the classroom. Through a series of community outreach efforts, St. Vrain’s high school students are working with scientists, park rangers, city officials — even shark researchers. They’re receiving a science education with a career context and learning how science can be applied in real life, filling them with newfound focus and experiences they can apply back to their classroom studies.

Read our previous feature article for more about St. Vrain’s environmental literacy programs.

Michael O’Toole, the K–12 science coordinator at St. Vrain Valley schools, has a vision for how STEM studies like these can be applied across all subjects to build a stronger foundation for future learners.

“We’re fortunate to have a 1:1 environment, in which our secondary students each have an iPad, but we are still committed to a hands-on science experience,” said O’Toole.

O’Toole has taken his environmental learning to vistas like Tanzania and Mount Kilimanjaro, sharing excursions with other learners online. On one particular trip in 2015, students from Nigeria, Oman, South Africa, Tanzania, and the United States explored the unique biomes and the summit of Kilimanjaro. As students planted their feet atop the 19,341-foot summit, other students from all over the world watched online, expanding the scope of environmental learning.

“In science, we have an opportunity to become citizen scientists, where students not only learn but help contribute to something bigger than themselves,” he said.

“All of this contributes to the overall knowledge of our community and planet as well as giving students real-world experiences.”

St. Vrain’s educators are finding new ways to use Discovery Education Science Techbook as a platform to enhance the hands-on experience of students, he said.

“We are always looking for ways to incorporate 21st-century skills such as creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. This mindset allows our teachers to push past previous limits of traditional educational practices, unleashing the learning and contribution potential of our future scientists,” said O’Toole.

Securing National Grants

A key piece of St. Vrain’s transformation clicked into place as the district started to gain national recognition, and funding, to help propel its improvements. The first instance of national acclaim occurred in 2010 when the district earned an Investing in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education. These coveted awards, known as i3 grants, were created in response to the recession of 2009 in an effort to help supplement school spending and to fund experiments that aimed to improve the achievements of disadvantaged students.

In the first year, awards were open to individual districts instead of states. St. Vrain’s application was one of 1,700 to vie for a portion of the $650 million fund. More than 300 judges pored over the applications, rating them on a 105-point scale. St. Vrain got the top score of all the applicants, garnering a $3.6 million grant over five years.

One little-known part of the i3 grants was that grantees needed to match at least 20 percent of the award with funds from the private sector. For St. Vrain, that meant getting $721,000. Ridgeview Communications, a telecommunications company, agreed to provide $734,000 of in-kind donations over five years. This included internet access, consultation with district officials, and technical support. IBM also stepped up, contributing $215,000 worth of software to the seven schools named in the grant. IBM went a step further, donating software to 14 other St. Vrain schools, although that total of $436,000 couldn’t be counted to match the i3 grant.

After launching the STEM Academy within Skyline High School, which focused specifically on engineering and computer science, Haddad recalls that their district was becoming more visible.

“People were paying attention to what we were doing, and different companies were wanting to provide support,” Haddad says.

Teaming up with the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Engineering to create the academy, St. Vrain administrators started by identifying the skills needed to be successful in college.

Patty Quinones, who was then the school’s principal and is now the district’s assistant superintendent of innovation, worked backward to translate the end goals into curricula that met the state’s academic standards. Program graduates with good grades were guaranteed entry to CU’s College of Applied Sciences.

About 240 students have graduated from the STEM Academy in its eight years, and nearly 40 percent of them have gone on to STEM-related postsecondary programs. The graduation rate for the academy has jumped four percentage points, to 81 percent.

As impressive as St. Vrain’s i3 win was, it was only a warm-up for what was to come. While 49 organizations and districts won i3 grants, St. Vrain was about to join even more exclusive company two years later. With an application based on the same STEM program that netted the i3 award, St. Vrain won a Race to the Top (RTTT) grant in 2012, grabbing $16.6 million. This time the district was one of 16 winners out of more than 350 applications.

The RTTT grant focused on programs related to technology, professional development, extending the school year, and Skyline High School’s STEM program. It also helped bring that program to the high school’s seven feeder schools, which served many of the district’s minority students and English-language learners.

As good as this progress was, district leadership recognized that something was missing. The district put together a robust STEM curriculum, which included project-based learning and working with engineering students and faculty from the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus.

Launching the Innovation Center

The goal for the district’s newly created Innovation Center was simple but challenging. The district wanted students to use the center to stretch themselves by mixing their creativity with top-notch tools to work for clients outside the school district.

St. Vrain’s Innovation Center began three years ago. The 6,000-square-foot center is located at the district’s career development center. It’s stocked with a bevy of tools students can use for their various projects, including a technology lab, an electronics lab, and fabrication and wood tools. The center also includes high-end industry equipment, such as a laser cutter, five 3D printers, and a scanner. Perhaps the most eye-popping tools in the center are the Nao programmable humanoid robots. These 23-inch-high robots have been used everywhere, from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, where they were used to train International Space Station crews and assist elderly patients.

Not only do students take high-end courses and gain industry certifications through their work at the center, those working on projects for clients earn $10 an hour.

“It expands their opportunities and skill sets,” Quinones adds.

For example, the center is the only school of its kind in the country where students can earn Apple certification for technicians. Successful students can walk out of high school and earn $45,000 working for Apple or third-party companies, but St. Vrain encourages the students to attend college and work at fixing Apple products while there. In this way, students also leave college with a solid work history.

Students at the Innovation Center in St. Vrain Valley Schools interact with virtual reality headsets.

This year, 24 students gained the certification, and the group worked not only for the district but also for the city of Longmont. Students help the district roll out technology, and they conducted workshops to train Longmont firefighters and policemen how to use new iPhones.

Perhaps the best manifestation of the type of work that students complete at the center is the project that has students working to save an endangered frog in Bolivia and Peru. The students built an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that they named Thelma. This device can go twice as deep as a scuba diver, and it is equipped with sensors that can record the water’s properties.

“Our students not only built the underwater ROV, but they also communicate with the marine biologists [using the device]. Because some students are bilingual, they communicate with the scientists directly,” Quinones says.

While district staff oversee student work and keep projects on track, the more important oversight comes from outside experts. The project lead initiates the logistics and sets timelines, and students fill out time cards. Because they get paid, all students are run through the district’s human resources department.

Students have built robots, done computer programming, designed apps and websites, and even served as beta testers for companies.

As good as the center’s results have been in the first three years, the district is excited about the future. Thanks to $20 million from the $260 million bond initiative that passed last year, the center will be getting its own stand-alone building for the 2016-2017 school year. The 50,000-square-foot center will be able to serve all of St. Vrain’s schools.

In addition to the high-tech tools the district already deploys, the center will have four new components. An entrepreneurial zone will allow students to hone small-business skills, while a “pitch room” aims to replicate the SXSW Accelerator product demonstration spaces, and a biomedical engineering lab will allow students to work with various higher education partners. In the center’s new aeronautics division, students will be able to create ROV projects, conduct flight testing, and build drones.

“Our team visited Stanford Design School, and many of the things that we saw served to inform us as we built this program,” said Haddad.

“I feel like St. Vrain and the Innovation Center have definitely changed students’ pathways for higher-paying jobs and better opportunities to look at their choices of careers,” Quinones says.

“We’ve made huge differences for students who didn’t see themselves going to college or becoming engineers, mathematicians, or scientists.”

Fostering Public-Private Partnerships

The crown jewel for St. Vrain is the creation of over 60 partnerships with large companies such as IBM, Apple, and Toyota.

Other prominent partners include:

  • OtterBox, which makes durable cases for mobile phones
  • Aldebaran Robotics, which makes the humanoid Nao robot
  • Esri, a GIS mapping software company
  • Sphero, a Boulder-based company that makes app-connected toys
  • SparkFun Electronics, a Colorado-based maker of microcontroller development boards
  • Red Idea Partners, a consulting and venture capital company in the food, technology, and consumer markets

The evolution of St. Vrain’s partnership with IBM helps illuminate how the best collaborations not only serve the company and the district, but also can deepen over time. IBM is a neighbor of St. Vrain, with a massive facility in nearby Boulder. IBM created its 500-acre Boulder facility in 1965; it includes 2.5 million square feet of space and 26 buildings.

The district expanded its partnership with IBM in 2009 when the company recognized the excellence and potential at St. Vrain.  IBM agreed to in-kind donations to the district for the i3 grant in 2010. When St. Vrain went after its Race to the Top (RTTT) grant in 2012, IBM upped its involvement with the district. District officials asked the company how they could help interest their youngest learners—kindergarten to second grade—with STEM and science programs.

P-Tech students meet with industry mentors from IBM.

“We looked at each other and thought ‘Whoa,’” says Ray Johnson, IBM’s corporate citizenship and corporate affairs manager. “It was a great idea.”

IBM and St. Vrain agreed to create a two-week Innovation Academy for a Smarter Planet. The program, run with the University of Colorado, targets elementary school students and runs during the summer months. One project, designed by fourth graders, is a “nonbullying social media app” that can tag objectionable language.

The program marks its seventh year in 2017. This year 240 students attended what one teacher calls “engineering summer camp.” Students spend one week at an IBM training center and the second week refining their prototypes at St. Vrain’s Innovation Center. From this work, district officials, with help from three IBM representatives, have now created a STEM preschool.

“I always say we don’t give kids, especially young kids, enough credit for what their minds are capable of absorbing at such a young age,” Johnson says. “They are like sponges. At the end of two weeks, second-graders are using terms like prototype.”

Talking about the deep partnership between the district and the company, Johnson says St. Vrain has been an aggressively innovative district.

“That made it easy for us to see what they wanted to accomplish and let them know what we wanted to be part of,” said Johnson, adding that like most companies, IBM is happy to offer intellectual expertise more than just a check, because that is where true value lies.

IBM’s involvement with St. Vrain went up another notch when the two, along with Front Range Community College, opened the first of three P-TECH 9-14 schools in Colorado last year. That school, Falcon Tech, has a six-year program that allows students to earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in four to six years, at no charge to the student. The school features integrated high school and college coursework, along with rich workplace experiences, including mentoring, site visits, paid internships, and “first-in-line” job interview opportunities from IBM.

“It’s a real boost for the economy, because you’re creating a talent pipeline for a number of industries, and it’s a boost for the school districts. Graduation rates go up, and kids get the attention and support to earn a college degree and be ready with the skills required for 21st-Century careers,” Johnson said.

Student Achievements

So with all this progress, how are St. Vrain’s students doing? By a variety of measures, the needle is pointing up. In 2017, students achieved the highest average ACT scores in the district’s history, and they took 3,500 AP tests, an increase of 1,000 tests just from last year. The district’s graduation rate jumped 3 percentage points in the last year alone.

The district’s English language learners and special education students do still face a significant achievement gap. Given that ELL students are 15 percent of St. Vrain’s student population and special education students 10 percent, this is a significant number of students. In the district’s accreditation rating, the district met the performance indicators in both academic achievement and academic growth at its elementary and middle schools. In its high schools, the district’s results are labeled “approaching” in achievement and growth.

Haddad prefers to look beyond just state test scores to get a full picture of the district’s health and its trajectory. The news there is also good.

“Discipline rates have plummeted and enrollment, a true test of what you’re offering, is skyrocketing. Kids are coming to St. Vrain in droves,” he says.

The district leader goes outside the numbers to highlight the top reason for the district’s growth.

“Our district’s overall success is a result of all stakeholders, including the students, the teachers, the classified staff, the parents, the business community, and the elected officials, coming together to make a strong statement that educating our children is our top priority. And we in the St. Vrain Valley Schools could not be more grateful to the community for their support.

“That’s at the heart of why we’re so successful,” said Haddad.

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3 Ways ESSA Gets Computer Science Education Right

If you’re an educator, you’re probably already familiar with The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). But questions abound regarding the status of this federal renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act. What education programs will or will not lose funding, and to what degree? Will more federal dollars be allocated for vouchers and school choice? How will these changes improve student outcomes?

The answers to some of these questions could take years, but some should begin emanating from Washington shortly, as federal budget deliberations proceed. However, one tenet of ESSA’s guidelines is unlikely to waver — an enhanced focus on computer science.

Since its inception in 2015, ESSA has signaled a shift in authority regarding educational programming from the federal to the state level. In addition to this increase in autonomy, there are now more consistent expectations for all U.S. students regarding computer science instruction in schools. Its instruction is no longer viewed as an elective.

Computer science was included with other core subjects, such as writing, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in ESSA’s definition of a “well-rounded education.”

Computer science instruction has become an essential part of the core curriculum for many school districts, and with the ESSA’s urging, many others will begin ramping up efforts to get students ahead of a massive projected  job shortage. This shortfall had already presented itself as of 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics:

Here are three things the ESSA gets right with its approach to computer science education:

1. Increases Access to Digital Resources

President Obama allocated $4 billion to states to increase access to computer science coursework . Called the “Computer Science for All” plan, this financial commitment supports the ESSA requirement that all students receive high-quality instruction in order to be college and career ready.

A number of partnerships between organizations have been fostered to support this initiative. For example, the National Science Foundation has collaborated with the Department of Defense to develop an effective computer science curriculum for children of military families. These students may frequently move due to one or both parents’ assignments. Having a reliable computer science curriculum will help to ensure that educators working with military families can provide high-quality instruction wherever the families may go.

2. Encourages a More Integrated Approach to Computer Science

Teaching technology in isolation can decrease the relevance of the knowledge and skills gained. Students may fail to make the connection between computer science and how it might be applied in the real world.

With ESSA, educators are expected to integrate computer science with many areas of instruction. For instance, the STEM subjects offer obvious opportunities for integration. Programming a robot to perform simple tasks can happen as early as elementary school. Older students can write code to create applications for gathering and sharing data about the environmental health of the planet. These efforts of citizen scientists make crowdsourcing through technology a necessary part of academic studies.

Integrating computer science can be just as important in the arts and humanities. As an example, graphic design is a skill regularly employed in advanced secondary courses such as journalism and business education. Most teachers, when they take a step back, will realize that computer science is already a tacit part of their curriculum and instruction. With a little forethought, entry points can be found or created to facilitate this integration at a deeper level.

3. Expects Student Learning Results with Increased Funding

The Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund makes ESSA dollars available for new instructional approaches. Awarded projects are expected to foster tangible, positive outcomes in student learning. Results matter as much as the efforts.

One example involves an Arizona State University program called CompuGirls. It aims to improve computer literacy for girls living in high-needs rural and urban areas. The focus of these efforts is to improve non-cognitive skills such as self-efficacy and resilience through computer-related coursework. Resources that are allocated through competitive ESSA programs such as i3 are based on measurable outcomes. This will help ensure funds are used effectively. The findings from these projects are to be shared widely with other educators.

Like any government policy, funding and guidance are only as effective as how well they are implemented at the classroom level. Teachers and students will need the resources, training, and support from building- and district-level leadership in order to make the federal promise of computer science for all a reality.

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Column: Managing and Leading Schools: Finding the Right Blend for Principals

I sat in the back of a second-grade classroom, watching students being offered a choice.

They could respond in two different ways to a text that the whole class had read — a folktale depicting a family’s annual tradition from another culture. Students could write a review of the story or create a how-to essay about an activity they are familiar with. Because the students’ choices were authentic, when they embarked on their writing, every one of them was engaged.

As the school’s principal, I regularly conduct formal observations like these. No matter how good the instruction is, I always try to look for possibilities for professional growth.

In this situation, one literacy choice stood out for its quality and meaningfulness: students could describe in writing their own family traditions. This activity was rife with possibilities. What if the teacher modeled for students the steps for successful memoir writing? Could she demonstrate with a personal family tradition of her own? How might this reading–writing experience connect with social studies and maybe even a deeper study into family traditions from around the world?

During this session, I briefly stopped documenting evidence of instruction and instead started jotting down these ideas and questions on a pad of paper. There was no reason to put this information in the teacher’s observation; I didn’t intend to make these recommendations without an initial conversation about how the teacher thought the lesson went. Our follow-up discussion would take place later that day. The formal observation became the impetus for a conversation about embedding better literacy practices throughout the school day.

This example conveys how important it is that principals have the necessary time, knowledge, and experiences to be the instructional leaders in their schools. It doesn’t happen by accident.

Ensuring that the principal is a constant, effective presence in school demands three essential strategies: identifying school priorities, making classroom visits a habit, and using these visits to guide future professional learning.

Management should not be separate from instructional leadership. They are inseparable and support one another.

The Truth Behind #NoOfficeDays

Old-school thinking when it came to building leadership was clear One could tick off a principal’s duties with the ABCs: attendance, behavior, classroom observations, discipline, evaluation of staff, etc.  Recently, these managerial tasks have been somewhat rejected by school leaders.

Principals are engaging in “no office days”, as evidenced by tweets of their experiences with the hashtag #noofficeday. Sometimes they will shadow a student for a day to gain a learner’s experience. Principals have even become a teacher for the day, giving one of their staff members the day to grade papers and plan for future instruction.

These efforts by building leaders to be more present and visible in their schools are admirable. I’ve tried it myself, participating in a day of independent reading to promote literacy. The reality, however, is that principals don’t get subs.

Unless a building administrator has an assistant principal, there is no one qualified to fill in for us. The less spectacular tasks that are relegated to the office will still be there when we get back. Staff are left covering for us. Making #noofficedays a habit could breed resentment with one group while we try to be more present for another.

I suggest a better approach for being an instructional leader in our schools while still addressing the day-to-day managerial tasks: Find the right blend. This means understanding the context of our school and what needs to get done on the office end, so we are a more consistent presence in the classrooms and on building grounds.

Every school has a unique mix of class size, diversity, climate, needs, and strengths. With this information, we can align our work with a few priorities. Finding the right blend also means scheduling our days so classroom visits are habit instead of an event. A smart integration of management and leadership duties can lead to improved teaching and learning. The following strategies can be applied to any school context.

1. Develop a Priority Plan

We can only focus on a few goals at any one time and still be successful as school leaders. In my school, I am new to the position. That means that building trust is a priority. I’ve done a lot of listening. I’ve asked staff about their thoughts and needs, and ensured I am visible throughout the school day. Our other priority is literacy, specifically around reading comprehension and fluency. The data was clear in this area. Our leadership team has responded with facilitating monthly professional development around authentic reading and writing experiences.

The idea of aligning our actions with our priorities into a plan comes from The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin. She defines a priority plan as, “a three-month extraction from your yearly goals that names what matters most for you and your team.” I look at my priority plan regularly as I prepare for upcoming work.

Having our priorities laid out and aligned with our goals and objectives accomplishes two things. First, the faculty are clear about what we will support regarding professional development opportunities and teaching resources. Second, it is easier to say no to requests that aren’t aligned with our priorities. It’s not a subjective or personal decision, but based on a clear rationale.

For example, I was recently asked why STEM is not a focus. The response: “It seems like that’s all education talks about.” I listened and then asked this person how literacy might support the STEM areas. We ended up agreeing that if students wanted to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, they had to be literate.

2. Make Classroom Visits a Habit

To ensure a school’s priorities are put into practice, school leaders must make classroom visits a habit. If we are successful in redistributing nonessential tasks to other personnel, this can happen every day. I put classroom visits on my calendar, which is shared with my assistant. The minimum is one hour per day, getting into every classroom for at least a brief time. Staff understand that this is protected time. Any interruptions should be an emergency. (I’ve learned that the term “emergency” also requires conversation to develop a common understanding.)

Being visible in the classrooms daily serves our dual priorities of building trust and increasing effective literacy instruction. To build trust, I make sure my visits are focused on teachers’ strengths, and that I let teachers know what I am noticing. The feedback can be given verbally or in writing. I ordered a stack of professional notepads with my name and school information. I will write down what I notice is going well and leave the note in the teacher’s classroom or mailbox. In addition, I will name the effective practice using common language we have learned together during our literacy-based professional development program.

Trust relies on open communication. This goes for the parents and community as well as the teachers and students. That is why I also use Twitter to post the excellent work happening in classrooms. My school tweets usually consist of a brief description, at least one image of the learning in action, and the hashtag #PointerNation so it shows up on our district’s social media feeds. Using the same process of noticing and naming, I can now recognize and celebrate teaching and learning around literacy in an open forum. An additional benefit is all this information can be archived digitally to document and organize artifacts for our professional evaluation systems.

3. Use Instructional Walks to Reinforce Professional Learning

As trust increases and literacy instruction improves, windows open in which I can start offering feedback about teacher instruction. During my regular classroom visits, I will sometimes sit in for a longer period to write a narrative of what is currently happening. It is noticing what is happening and then naming the practice. These one-page write-ups are referred to as “instructional walks,” in which “the principal notices what’s going well in the classroom—environment, management, engagement, level of student independence, lesson content, grouping arrangements, quality of student work,” writes Regie Routman.  Like the brief notes, the goal is to build on teachers’ strengths and create a relationship in which they are open to future guidance.

Because my walks are habit, I can address our collective instruction instead of conferencing with each teacher individually. The information gleaned from my daily visits is used to inform future professional learning experiences.

What if teachers are not applying the skills learned during professional development into practice? Certainly, I could note this during our formal observations for the state-mandated evaluation system. Yet I find the rubrics and evidence gathering to be limited at best—helpful for teachers in one or more areas, but unnecessary when teachers are already doing well. Formal observations and evaluations can even be detrimental to the daily classroom visit process. Trust can deteriorate when there is too much of a focus on ratings and rubrics. Also, evaluation systems are time-intensive. They used to monopolize my days, which is why I now do the bare minimum in this area.

Instead, as much as I can, I am a learner with staff and students. One way is by asking lots of questions. Whether during an instructional walk or formal observation, I will make inquiries about why teachers are doing what they are doing. For example, instead of leaving a vague, summative statement, such as “This was an effective activity, because…,” I might ask “What about this activity do you feel had the greatest impact on student learning?” Whether the learning experience was excellent or otherwise, the responsibility is now on the teacher to self-assess their instruction. Follow-up probes, such as “Why do you believe that? ,” guide teachers to cite evidence from their lessons to support their rationale.  My wonderings also happen during professional development. Instead of positioning myself as an expert, I might question a belief or a statement as if I were also teaching.

Management and Leadership are Not Mutually Exclusive

During the post-observation conversation with the 2nd grade teacher, I started by asking a series of questions, starting with “How do you think the lesson went?” and “Why do you think that?” Once we affirmed that the lesson was a success, I started to probe with wonderings to unpack what was possible for the future. “Of all the choices, which literacy activity might lead to future learning?” was the inquiry that led to a professional conversation about expanding on the family traditions writing activity. The teacher suggested a personal family tradition that she could use for a writing demonstration. I held off recommending that she tie in social studies with a deeper understanding of the concept of traditions. Knowing that my priorities were in place, that my classroom visits were a habit, and that I had a team to guide faculty in professional learning, I knew that I would have more opportunities in the future.

This is Matt’s seventeenth year in public education. He started as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students at a junior high, which developed into an assistant principal position and eventually head principal at an elementary school. Now as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, Matt enjoys the curriculum, instruction and assessment side of education. You can also connect with Matt on Twitter at @ReadByExample and on his website at mattrenwick.com.

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Modern Learning in the Great Outdoors

In Rocky Mountain National Park, middle school students from St. Vrain Valley School District are sharing a trail with a mountain lion, bear cubs, a coyote, deer, and a skunk intent on spraying the area under cover of darkness.

How do the students know all of this? They’re reviewing videos they collected the previous night taken from cameras they mounted on trees. They got some tips about field science from the park rangers, and now they’re gathering wildlife data and providing it to the park themselves. Their counterparts in high school are contributing in the field, too, working with Ocean First Education. They recently watched divers in the Pacific measuring the length of great white sharks using a device they designed and developed themselves.

Across the country, at BioTECH @ Richmond Heights High School in Miami, science teacher Noelle Gerstman is guiding her students as they analyze the DNA of flamingo feathers. Students are working to determine whether flamingos found in the wild are, in fact, wild or are escapees from a local race track that is home to a flock in captivity. Meanwhile, their schoolmates are collaborating with NASA on the Growing Beyond Earth project, germinating leafy greens, kale, and tomatoes to determine which vegetables are the best to grow in microgravity aboard the International Space Station.

Honing Environmental Literacy

These students are lucky, but it shouldn’t take luck to provide amazing educational opportunities like this. Environmental literacy is a critical skill that all educators should help their students develop. It requires authentic, student-driven, hands-on challenges in which every learner can pursue or discover an interest.

The North American Association for Environmental Education defines an environmentally literate person as “someone who, both individually and together with others, makes informed decisions concerning the environment; is willing to act on these decisions to improve the well being of other individuals, societies, and the global environment; and participates in civic life.” The association goes further to define four areas of competency: knowledge, disposition, skills, and behaviors. In other words, it’s not enough to understand the facts. One must care about and interact with the environment in order to be considered environmentally literate.

In a school setting, it takes a focused dedication to create relevant and rigorous opportunities for students so they can build the skills required to be informed and engaged citizens. Some of the best ways to foster engagement include presenting authentic problems in the classroom, encouraging active solution-seeking, and providing a link between the classroom and the community.

Gerstman finds that it doesn’t take much to get students involved. At BioTECH, student awareness and interest drive the inquiry.

“The changes in sea level at Miami Beach just in the last 10 years, they’re evident: they’re raising the streets in Miami Beach,” she said. “So, the evidence of environmental change is really in our face. The students like to watch the Weather Channel, and a couple of them commented, ‘There’s been no snow in Chicago.’”

For students to be able to understand an authentic challenge, they need knowledge; to create a solution, they need skills; to act, they need to care and connect. An authentic challenge offers a cycle of influence: understanding, application, action. Academicians are used to transferring knowledge and skills, but it is more challenging to teach disposition and behavior. In fact, it may be impossible to teach those concepts directly. However, students who can seize on opportunities for real collaboration and connection soon develop in these areas.

No Walls, No Limits

That’s what is happening with St. Vrain Valley School District’s students in Rocky Mountain National Park. Right alongside the students practicing field science is a group of students more interested in documentation. While one group of students affix cameras to trees and another downloads and analyzes the data, yet another group is documenting the whole endeavor on film, while still others are documenting the documentarians.

The benefits are broad: students gain experience with field science, the communication of scientific ideas, the process of documentation, and collaboration with fellow scientists.

“Learning takes on a whole different realm,” said Mike O’Toole, St. Vrain’s science coordinator. “They’re learning about film making and other 21st-century skills that have become so vital.”

The film documenting their work, “Plains to the Park,” was entirely scripted, narrated, filmed, and edited by middle school students. The final version is virtually indistinguishable from a federal park production, including voice-over narration and professional-looking clips of sweeping blue skies and babbling mountain streams.

Meanwhile in Florida, BioTECH’s high school students are listening to scientists and learning about ongoing mysteries at Zoo Miami. They’ve talked to scientists there and learned that, for some animals, reproductive rates are low. Using background knowledge they gained in the classroom about hormones, the students propose looking at the hormone levels of the animals to see if there are any imbalances that may account for the reproductive pattern. This is an opportunity to learn in the field while addressing a real, unsolved, scientific mystery and, potentially, make a valuable contribution to science at the zoo.

Environmental literacy applies across the STEM spectrum, including projects that require technology, engineering, and math skills. For instance, O’Toole has partnered with Ocean First Education to support divers studying great white sharks. The student contribution to the deep-water dive in the Pacific is a laser-based measurement tool that allows the divers to measure the sharks in motion with a high degree of accuracy. O’Toole, who supports the efforts of science teachers across his district, focuses on creating partnerships with organizations like Ocean First Education and NASA to find rich learning opportunities for students.

So, how is this possible in a district or a school that hasn’t been designed for these types of partnerships and programs? After all, they take funding, time, and intense collaboration with the scientific community.

Starting Small, Dreaming  Big

“It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. It’s just getting students outside,” he said. “Right now, we’re really focusing on using technology to get students invested in the outdoors.”

In St. Vrain schools, teachers use their schoolyards to begin studying outside. They use a math scavenger hunt in which students are challenged to find examples of math concepts in nature. Elementary school students, each given a camera or tablet, head outside to find something in nature that’s circular or parallel. Or, a teacher might use his or her own interest, such as hiking or gardening, as a jumping-off point and contact a scientist in the community to seek a collaborative opportunity.

Gerstman agrees that you can start locally, with a university partner, for example, but she is convinced that to truly maximize environmental literacy programs, educators need a deep commitment at the federal level in the form of funding. The grant proposal for BioTECH was written by a team of teachers and scientists with the express purpose of funding this biology and botany magnet school. The school has its own analytical chemistry lab, a zoology lab, and a DNA lab and is staffed with veteran teachers, most with advanced degrees in their field.

Even if you’re starting small, with a purposeful use of technology, scientists and students can share and collaborate online. O’Toole regularly uses technology to connect students around the world. He’s invited classrooms in Colorado and Tanzania to connect through a learning expedition at Mount Kilimanjaro, and he shares the excursions online so students everywhere can follow along. During the Discovery Education Virtual Field Trip to Kilimanjaro, students all over the world sported safari gear at school and joined in virtually as the group reached the summit.  Online watch parties, chats, conferences, and social media exchanges are all good ways to expand the impact of environmental projects.

Some contests and challenges are also good for developing environmental literacy and may result in collaborations between students and scientists. Contests with authentic challenges require students to meet all four competency areas: they must learn about the problem, care about it, have or acquire skills to address it, and act.

Discovery Education’s Young Scientist Challenge is an example of this type of challenge. Participating students propose solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, underscoring in the process that humans are affected by and can affect the environment. Finalists have the opportunity to work with scientists from 3M to participate in authentic scientific process and prototyping, including the presentation of results and proposals.

Fostering Citizen Scientists

With all the potential for partnerships and global connection, the most important ingredient in the development of environmental literacy seems to be a dedication to creating opportunities for real scientific learning and impact to occur.

Educators must provide experiences that allow students to develop knowledge and empathy in order to stretch toward a concern for the world and a sense of agency about their part in it. Only then can all the necessary components sync toward environmental literacy.

After all, environmental literacy isn’t a check mark on a mastery list for children or adults. Rather, it is an evolving competency. In our changing world, educators must continue to be involved and informed citizens, preparing the next generation to carry the torch forward.

Jeanette Edelstein is an educator dedicated to making learning more engaging for students of all ages. She has been a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, and program developer. She was a founding teacher and the gifted and talented coordinator at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts. Her curriculum projects include Hive Alive!, a collection of teaching resources about honey bees, Animal Planet Rescue, a disaster relief and educational vehicle that rescued over 1,000 animals, and CapsinSchool, an elementary curriculum based on the math and science of hockey.

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STEM for All: How to Create a Healthy STEM Ecosystem

Many of the most valuable jobs of tomorrow depend on the STEM education happening in today’s classrooms.

The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million IT jobs available but only 400,000 computer science graduates with the required skills to fill the positions. Companies continue to report their STEM jobs aren’t being filled, and HR departments are not finding applicants with the necessary skills for success. STEM Connector data shows there will soon be 3 million vacant jobs because students entering the workforce are lacking STEM skills. The good news is that STEM education initiatives are on the rise across the country to meet this growing demand in the workforce.

To satisfy this appetite for STEM, educators are feeling the pressure to make curriculum changes, but many are not sure how to begin. School districts respond to this pressure by providing courses for gifted students and STEM-focused after-school clubs. However, this selective approach is failing to provide adequate STEM experiences for all Pre-K-12 students.

Timing is crucial for sparking the curiosity necessary for placing students on the path toward a STEM career. By the time students reach high school, they have already developed strong perceptions about themselves and future STEM careers, leaving educators playing catch-up.

Spreading STEM Far and Wide

The idea that STEM education is only for the most gifted students on track for graduate degrees is now a falsehood. Roughly 35 percent of the 8.6 million STEM jobs needed nationwide will require sub-baccalaureate degrees by the year 2020. Apple recently shared that 28 percent of their workforce does not have a 4-year degree. Armed with this data, what is the appropriate path forward for educators to ensure the next generation possesses a proper amount of STEM knowledge?

Educating all students in STEM practices will level the playing field and provide pathways to future success for all no matter your zip-code, skin color, cultural background, or gender.

Something needs to change, but it is unfair to expect educators to institute foundational changes without extensive support. A study conducted by Horizon Research could light the way for districts looking to make changes.

In the NSF Urban Systemic Initiative, $1 billion was dedicated across 10 years to encourage middle and high school math and science teachers to conduct more hands-on inquiry and use technology. After 10 years, Horizon researchers found that teachers needed 80 hours of professional development (PD) focused on a defined set of strategies to change their practice and 160 hours of PD focused on a defined set of strategies to change the culture.

As a result of this research, we now have a better understanding of what it will take to truly change the culture and practices in a school. The onus will not fall only on teachers, but administrators, leaders, communities, and the broader education community. Professional development will be the key to this transformation. Horizon researchers further determined the most effective PD was not just direct pull-out training, but a combination of pull out in-person training combined with job-embedded coaching.

The beauty of STEM in all Pre-K-12 classes is that all students love to find solutions for real-world problems. Asking students to create solutions to these problems respects their unique thinking and invites them to use their abilities to generate innovations that can make the world a better place.

When students and teachers develop 21st-century skills like collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity, all types of learners become engaged. Asking students to work together to find solutions in authentic situations further develops their communication skills and character, both vital to joining the STEM workforce of the future.

How STEM for All Students Can Make an Impact

While I was serving as Director of PreK-12 STEM for the 145,000 students in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School District, my colleagues and I began STEM work with students in our struggling Title 1 schools. Many of these students were several years below grade level in reading and math. We discovered, however, that these economically disadvantaged students were excellent problem solvers, constantly engaged in repurposing items to entertain themselves at home and were accustomed to outside-the-box thinking.

By providing professional development to teachers to support hands-on inquiry using real world problems, we engaged students who were not typically excited to be in school. Though we began the process struggling to reach students who had discipline problems, were below grade level in reading and math, and did not come from families that had graduated from college, we soon witnessed rapid changes.

After one year of providing STEM teaching and learning, our state test data indicated the average student experienced up to two years of growth in classes utilizing STEM practices, while special education and English Language Learners were experiencing four to five years of growth. Teachers experienced more job satisfaction and the attrition rates at these Title 1 schools decreased swiftly as a result of the support and success.

Following the success of the first year of STEM with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Title 1 schools, other schools in the district were eager to get involved. After three years, our fifth and eighth grade science test scores improved by 44 points, while the state scores increased by six points. Our math teachers dipped their toes in the STEM waters and added a short digital asset to their curriculum to make math relevant to students. This simple addition, coupled with a few non-threatening STEM practices integrated into their lessons, improved third through eighth grade math scores by 35 points, while the state scores increased by seven points.

When we began this work, there was a 37-point gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers. After three years of STEM, the gap decreased to seven points. It’s rare for a school district to reduce the achievement gap so significantly, and so quickly. These results speak for themselves.

As educators, it is our moral obligation to ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to become part of the STEM ecosystem of today and tomorrow.

As Yoda says, “Do or do not; there is no try.”

Dr. Cindy Moss is currently the Senior Director of Global STEM Initiatives for Discovery Education, and travels the world helping companies, nonprofits, Ministries of Education and school districts understand the importance of STEM education and how to implement it successfully.  Previously Dr. Moss served 10 years as the PreK-12 Director of STEM for the 145,000 students and 10,000 students in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School system.

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