Sometimes the only way to make progress is to leave something behind.
When building a program to enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in a school district, think “team.”
Akron (Ohio) Public Schools, which has a STEM middle school now and will open a STEM high school this fall, not only formed groups to focus on the different aspects of its program — facilities, operations, curriculum, performance measurement and so on — but also tapped other districts for help, says Superintendent David W. James.
Groups of people from Akron traveled to schools across the country, looking at different models of STEM schools. They then took the best of what they found and “Akronized” it, James says.
“We just find that collaborating is much easier to get everything done,” he adds. “Yes, I have to take a leadership role, but I’m certainly not alone.”
Now, Akron is paying it forward. People from as far away as Bahrain have come to see Akron’s STEM program. The school also is a hub within the state, so representatives from schools and districts throughout Ohio visit Akron to learn how to build STEM programs of their own.
When Judson Wagner was the physics department chairman at Concord High School in the Brandywine (Del.) School District, a lot of his students went on to become engineers. Many returned to visit him, and they’d often tell him they wished the school had offered more STEM-focused coursework. Wagner, working with the principal, used the information to make changes as best he could.
“But there was only so much we could do,” he says. “I realized that if I wanted to make a bigger impact, I needed to leave the classroom.”
Two years ago, the Brandywine School District won federal Race to the Top funding to launch a STEM program. At the start of the 2010–2011 school year, Wagner became the district’s STEM program manager.
It made sense at the time, given his interest. But in hindsight, hiring one person to oversee the district’s entire program was risky, Wagner says. He advises others to make a STEM initiative a team effort because it’s multifaceted. “There are so many components and many silos that need to be broken down,” he explains. “It’s hard for one person to digest everything and see how it all fits together, he says.
A team approach also leads to buy-in and provides a way for good ideas to bubble up organically — from the teachers and from a district’s families, says Michele Bowers, deputy superintendent for the Lancaster (Calif.) School District. It’s critical for school and district leaders to build capacity internally, so people understand what STEM is about and appreciate the need for such a curriculum, she says.
Carrie Shaver, whose son, Cole, is going into eighth grade at Lancaster’s Discovery School, agrees. “You can’t believe how many parents rallied together just to get books for the library.”
Shaver says Principal Andrew Glatfelter and the staff are so dedicated and enthusiastic, everyone wants to pitch in. “This school in particular is 100 percent a reflection of its leaders.”
Learn how school districts create long-term funding strategies for their STEM programs at edtechmag.com/k12/STEMfunding0312.