Bringing the Classroom Outside Creates a Lasting Impression

WOLF Archery Photo

Students line up for archery class, one of the many outdoor activities included in the program at Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility in Springfield, Missouri.

Imagine a school that allows students to canoe down a river, hold a bird of prey, and rappel down a cliff wall, among numerous other fun and exciting outdoor activities, for an entire school year. This one-of-a-kind opportunity is available through the WOLF (Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility) program, the product of a successful public-private partnership between the Springfield, Missouri public school system, Bass Pro Shops, and the Wonders of Wildlife Museum. And the best part about it is it’s free.

The yearlong school is open to 46 fifth-graders (23 boys and 23 girls) who are chosen from throughout the district by lottery system. They come from an economically and culturally diverse population of students, and include children from rural, urban, Title I, and high-need schools. It is not a gifted program and there are no academic requirements for acceptance.

Students initially learn about conserving local ecosystems in the classroom, and then experience those lessons firsthand by exploring the natural wonders of the Ozark region. By seamlessly blending a traditional 5th grade curriculum into a hands-on, place-based education, the school has successfully created a bridge between the students and the outdoors. “We still teach them everything, but with a nature angle,” says Sue Dyle, a teacher at the school.

It is an optimal way to reach a generation of youth that has become increasingly disconnected from the natural world. “The WOLF program changes the dynamics of how you learn, what you learn, and why you learn,” says Martin MacDonald, Director of Conservation for Bass Pro Shops.

While no one can argue WOLF is a welcome break from the confines of the traditional classroom setting, how effective is it from an academic perspective? According to Dyle, the school continues to see high marks from all its students in both classroom and statewide assessment tests. Students really develop a passion for learning, she says. But it is the intangibles such as improved self-confidence, teamwork, and an increased understanding of the environment that really set the program apart.

For former student Brock Metcalf, WOLF taught him things he never would have dreamed of learning in his previous school.  A self-avowed animal lover, he discovered creatures he never knew existed and got to handle rescued animals such as a barn owl he skillfully displayed during a recent tour. His most valuable takeaway: be respectful. An important lesson continually reinforced throughout the program, both inside and outside the classroom.

Patrick Kerr is the Region VII Director of Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education’s Kansas City office.

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Why Teachers Succeed in the Classroom

Teacher and students

Teacher Deborah Apple leads her 11th-grade physiology class at San Francisco’s Wallenberg High School in an activity illustrating how rewards can affect behavior.

What inspires teachers, and how do they inspire students? ED’s regional officers found some common threads as they shadowed educators from coast to coast to celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week. From a teacher who found her calling while volunteering in Peru to the National Teachers Hall of Fame honoree who uses music to communicate difficult science concepts, the variety of teachers they met spanned all styles and subjects. All of the teachers, however, were united by their passion for their work and dedication to getting the best out of their students. Highlights are below:

  • Thirty-year teaching veteran, Linda Krikorian of Milford, Mass., always finds something positive about the most challenging students: “I try not to leave anyone out; if not, the students fall through the cracks, and as a teacher you never want that to happen.”

    teacher and students

    Paula Williams, Early Learning Teacher at Sheltering Arms Early Learning Center in Atlanta, reviews sight words with her students.

  • Bradley Ashley, Technology Coordinator at NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, empowers his students to learn on their own: “I’m not very creative, but the kids are and I get the opportunity to show them ways to be creative. Like the teacher that can’t draw but provides the pen and paper.”
  • Breanna Ratkevic, George B. Fine Elementary School, Pennsauken, N.J., credits a trip to Peru in which she volunteered with children as the reason she pursued the teaching profession: “This experience was so rewarding that I wanted to continue my desire to make a difference in the world.”
  • Ninety-nine percent of Ella Davis’ students at Arabia Mountain High School in Lithonia, Ga., passed the Georgia High School Graduation Test. The school was also one of the first-ever U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools.
  • Rachel Jones, 8th grade Science teacher at Brooks Middle School in Bolingbrook, Ill., realized she wanted to be a teacher after 9/11: “That tragedy caused me to take a look at my life and when I did I was not happy and wanted to do something more meaningful.”
  • National Teachers Hall of Fame honoree, Beth Vernon of Blue Springs, Mo., has dedicated her career to finding the best possible medium to make classrooms more “brain compatible” in all STEM subjects.
  • A team of hand-selected teachers in a brand new school, and a leader with deep community roots coupled with the structure of the STRIVE Preparatory Schools adds up to success for children of color living in poverty at Denver’s STRIVE  Prep SMART Academy.  “Our work does not belong to us,” said school director Antonio Vigil, “it belongs to our students and their families
  • Students of Deborah Apple, 11th grade physiology teacher at Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School, San Francisco, appreciate the way she uses fun and creative ways to turn every lesson into an adventure. “Ms. Apple keeps it real. She’s honest with us,” said one student.
  • Barbara Isaacson, Head Start teacher at Lister Elementary School in Tacoma, Wash., summed up the week best with the following statement: “I love teaching, and feel there is no greater joy than to help a student learn something new for the first time and share in their excitement.”

The visits were a reminder of the indelible impact teachers have on students each and every day.   As Secretary Duncan said in a recent blog celebrating our nation’s teachers, “they astound me with what they accomplish…they do work that few of us could accomplish on our best days.” Teachers give so much and expect so little in return. They deserve our undying gratitude.

Patrick Kerr is Communications Director at the Regional Office in Kansas City and Julie Ewart is the Communications Director at the Regional Office in Chicago. 

ED Resources Honor Those Who Serve

From post-traumatic stress disorder, joblessness, to months of separation from loved ones, members of the military, their families, and veterans face a myriad of challenges these days. In conjunction with Veterans Day, ED has assembled multiple resources that commemorate the veteran experience and address some of the needs faced by the military community as a whole. It’s the Department’s way of saying “thank you” to everyone who has served and an opportunity to give back to those who have sacrificed so much on behalf of this country.

The first resource provides a compilation of materials that can be used by teachers to celebrate veterans both inside and outside the classroom environment. One of these is a comprehensive guide provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs in honor of Veterans Day. It contains suggested activities for students such as a flag-raising ceremony, poster contest, and musical tributes. It also explores ways students can volunteer for veteran-related causes, provides information on various military scholarship opportunities, and discusses the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day and the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The link also contains a couple of references from the Library of Congress that focus on military history and feature first-hand interviews and other audio/visual portrayals of those impacted by wars, past and present.

The General Services Administration explores different ways to observe and learn about Veterans Day and National Veterans Awareness Week, including census facts about veterans, U.S. coins honoring veterans, and more.

Lastly, ED has compiled a web page dedicated to military families and veterans.  The page leads with a statement that includes the following excerpt:

“…We want all military-connected school children to have an equal and fair opportunity for academic success. This requires that those individuals who make up our nation’s educational system—our teachers, principals, school nurses, coaches, and counselors—understand the unique situations the children of our service members experience.”

It also discusses mental health resources available to the military community and provides an overview of Secretary Duncan’s commitment to supporting military families. The page contains a wealth of additional information on issues ranging from military child care, public school attendance policies, and Federal Student Aid resources.
The willingness of America’s veterans to give so much for the country has earned them eternal gratitude.  This Veterans Day, be sure to thank a vet and share their story with others.

Patrick Kerr is ED’s communications director in Region VII, based in Kansas City. He served 10 years in the Marine Corps and recently completed his graduate degree using the Post 9/11 Montgomery GI Bill.

Strengthening the American Workforce through Innovation

St. Petersburg (Fla.) College engineering and technology student Tungo Harris has a plan: “I want to get gainfully employed — and I figure I will be after this — with a decent salary,” Harris told the Tampa Bay Times. Thanks to a new $15 million grant announced last month by U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis at St. Petersburg, Harris, a Navy veteran who is recovering from a brain tumor, can now get help in fulfilling his plan.

Overall, $500 million in grants will go to almost 300 community colleges and universities around the country as part of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training initiative. The grants promote skills development and employment opportunities in fields such as advanced manufacturing, transportation and health care, as well as science, technology, engineering and math careers through partnerships between training providers and local employers.

The Department of Labor is implementing and administering the program in coordination with the Department of Education. The grants announced in September are the second installment of a $2 billion, four-year initiative.”These federal grants are part of the Obama administration’s ongoing commitment to strengthening American businesses,” Solis said.

“It’s a big deal,” St. Petersburg College President Bill Law said in the same Tampa Bay Times article. His college is leading a consortium of a dozen Florida colleges in developing programs to prepare workers for advanced manufacturing jobs. “Our goal is to take the Florida college system and see if we can build on some success across the state.”

Patrick Kerr works in the ED Office of Communications and Outreach’s Region VII office, based in Kansas City, Mo.

Back-to-School Tour in the News: Day One

The first official day of the “Education Drives America” Back-to-School Bus Tour saw Secretary Duncan and other ED officials meeting with education stakeholders in California, Nevada, and other points of the compass. Prior to the official kick-off, senior staff held several additional events throughout the region. Check out some of the media coverage from the first few days.

Redwood City, Calif.

U.S. Secretary of Education kicks off cross country bus tour at Sequoia High in Redwood City, Calif.

Duncan says teachers are key to making technology and digital education work.

Sacramento, Calif.

In a meeting with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and area education leaders, Duncan Says Complacency Biggest Threat to Schools

Duncan promises to listen and learn during Town Hall in Sacramento.

Reno, Nev.

Arne Duncan discusses college affordability during telephone interview on the way to Reno.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan faces questions about Dream Act during Reno visit.

And in related news, ED officials fanned out across the region as part of the Back to School Bus Tour.

Mountain View, Calif.

Martha Kanter talks about how to improve STEM education nationwide at Google HQ.

Redwood City, Calif.

Karen Cator joins students on the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus at area high school.

Palo Alto, Calif.

Karen Cator and Richard Culatta attend Silicon Valley Digital Learning Meetup at Stanford University.

Elk Grove, Calif.

Greg Darnieder celebrated GEAR UP week at Elk Grove School District.

Las Vegas, Nev.

Brenda Dann-Messier seeks input from local officials during trip to Las Vegas.

Carson City, Nev.

Brenda Dann-Messier visits Western Nevada College in Carson City.

School Sees ‘Turnaround’ Progress in Just Two Years

Those questioning whether a school can dramatically turn around should look no further than Emerson Elementary School in the Argentine community of Kansas City, Kan. The school recently opened its doors to a group of local, state, and federal education officials, including Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary for policy and the head of ED’s Office of School Turnaround.

Following a tour of the school and conversations with school leadership, teachers, and students, Snyder said: “Our goal here is to understand what’s working and share that success with other schools across the country. The progress at Emerson is very encouraging.”

Just three years ago, Emerson was identified as the lowest-performing school in Kansas and was awarded a grant through the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program to implement one of four turnaround models. At Emerson, where 90% of the students are eligible for free or reduced priced lunches, over 43 percent of its students were performing in the academic warning area in math and 45 percent in the warning area in reading (compared to the state average of six percent in both subjects).

Jason Snyder visiting Emerson

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Snyder visits Emerson Elementary in Kansas City, Kan.

Enter new principal Brett Bernard, a revamped staff, and a strong vision focused on student achievement. The school today is barely recognizable from where it was two years ago when the SIG program was first implemented. Students are engaged in meaningful instruction because of the school’s new focus on literacy instruction, data-based classroom decisions, and increased learning time connected closely to the school’s curriculum.  Moreover, thanks to robust outreach efforts by a new parent-community specialist, the community is engaged in the turnaround efforts.

But the sweeping change wasn’t without its challenges – especially early in the process.  After learning that their school was the lowest-performing in Kansas, Emerson’s teachers felt a wide range of emotions: from anger and embarrassment to uncertainty and fear. Bernard worked to convince them that they were up for the job through positive reinforcement and a can-do/no-excuses attitude. Bernard said he realized that if true change were to happen, “it had to come from within them – and from within the PLCs (Professional Learning Communities).”

Through the turnaround process, test scores have risen dramatically: newly released 2012 scores show that barely two percent of Emerson students are now in the warning area in reading.  Just as telling: enrollment has increased from 130 students to 195 students in two years, as word of the dramatic improvements has spread across the local community.

Norma Cregan, of the Kansas Department of Education, who toured Emerson along with other education officials, noted that she had witnessed a “remarkable change” since her first visit to the school in 2010. It is a change that she continues to observe in other SIG schools throughout the state.  “What we see in all our SIG schools is strong leadership and strong growth,” she said.

Superintendent Lane expressed her appreciation for the additional resources provided through the SIG grant process. “We know what works to turn around struggling schools,” Superintendent Cynthia Lane said, “and Emerson demonstrates that, with support, districts can assist struggling schools to achieve at high levels.”

Ultimately, it is schools like Emerson that serve as models for other struggling schools across the country.  “It’s encouraging to see courageous leaders, like those at Emerson, improve outcomes of students and share their strong work with others,” said Snyder.

–Patrick Kerr is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Regional Office in Kansas City

Teacher Creates Museum Experience in Classroom

Stepping into Keil Hileman’s classroom was like being magically transported to a wing of the Smithsonian. This archeology teacher at Monticello Trails Middle school in Shawnee, Kan., has decorated every square inch of his space with a fascinating array of artifacts such as tribal masks, model airplanes, a jousting lance, dinosaur skeletons, and miniature replicas of ancient pyramids, to name just a few of the hundreds of items that adorn the room.

I had the opportunity to visit Hileman’s class as part of National Teacher Appreciation Week, when more than 50 ED staffers around the country went “Back to School” for a day to shadow teachers. I quickly discovered that it’s no wonder students line up to take Hileman’s classes.  But it’s not just the unique scenery that draws them in. Hileman never allows a dull moment to creep into his daily instruction.  His classes are like field trips to another land and a different era: alive with authenticity and intrigue.

Mr. Hileman in his classroom.

Mr. Hileman in his classroom.

During my visit, his students gave their final presentations on subjects ranging from the Mayan calendar to John F. Kennedy. One group even gave a live demonstration of a catapult they had built (instead of rocks, the contraption hurled tennis balls).  What made the presentations even more interesting however, was Hileman’s interaction with the students where he demonstrated his vast knowledge of history, science, geography, and numerous other subjects.

No matter how obscure the subject, Hileman appears to know something about it. The man is a walking encyclopedia; and funny, too. And his students clearly eat it up.

Hileman, a Teaching Ambassador Fellow for ED in 2008-2009, has been teaching for 19 years.  When asked about his inspiration for his one-of-a-kind classroom instruction, he relayed a story from his early years that dramatically changed the way he approached teaching:

“I passed around a Civil War bullet during class after watching a film on the war,” he said. There was something about holding a tangible piece of history that really resonated with his students.  “This bullet taught them more than any text books, curriculum, or worksheets ever could. I made a connection with them that I had never made before.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Hileman continues to inspire students who may have otherwise never discovered the many fascinating worlds that lay beyond the classroom.  Finding a teacher like Hileman is like unearthing a hidden treasure. With nearly 2 million baby boomer teachers retiring in the coming years, we need to inspire a new generation of great teachers to join those already in the classroom.  They’re a wonder to observe, and are priceless in value.

–Patrick Kerr is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Regional Office in Kansas City.