Bracken Academy Runs on STEAM Power

There’s a school in Nevada with an unusual name that is helping students to achieve promising results: Bracken STEAM Academy of Las Vegas.

The STEAM in Bracken’s name comes from its focus on science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, with the largest emphasis on engineering. The school also is placing a renewed focus on holding all students to rigorous, college- and career-ready standards.

Michelle Wheatfill, who teaches Bracken fifth-graders and has taught at the school for nine years, sees a difference in the classroom after teaching with heightened standards. “The students are learning exponentially,” Wheatfill said. “And because of the technology we have, they take charge of a lot of their learning. We’re there just to help guide them, instead of teaching every lesson with direct instruction.”

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Teacher Michelle Wheatfill introduces a lesson to her 5th grade class. (Photo Credit: Clark County School District)

Victoria Zblewski, a fourth-grade teacher with seven years of experience at Bracken, agrees. “As a result of the higher standards, my students are able to explain why we’re doing something,” she said. “We actually have kids write out their thinking, not just write their answer.”

But what do the students think of how they’re being taught? Wynn, a third-grader, said that she likes the opportunities that are presented. “Bracken is so good because the teachers don’t stop you at certain levels. They keep pushing you so you can keep going higher and get better.”

“Bracken is such a good school because the teachers push us to our level,” said Aden, a fifth-grade student. “I like when we get to do accelerated levels.”

Principal Kathleen Decker, who has led Bracken for 13 years, also sees the differences. “I’m in the classrooms all the time,” Decker said. “I do see teachers using a lot more hands-on, a lot more project-based learning, and a lot more differentiated and individualized instruction than in the past.”

Bracken’s commitment to higher standards is supported with two grants from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The Bracken STEAM Academy’s collaboration with Las Vegas’ Smith Center for the Performing Arts is funded by the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education Program which, in turn, is supported by ED’s Arts in Education National Program.

In addition, ED provides the school with $27,000 per year in a Title I grant, which helps keep the computer labs open before and after school, and funds a parent volunteer coordinator.

Principal Decker emphasized that teaching the children is the top priority and, one way or another, supporting the kids will always get done. At the same time, Decker said, “The federal money we receive at Bracken helps us engage everybody. The dollars do make a difference.”

Joe Barison is the director of communications and outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.