Rhode Island Partners with Low-Performing Schools to Help Them Improve

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Schools examine data frequently to identify what is driving improvement and revise improvement plans.

When administrators at Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Central Falls, Rhode Island, began closely analyzing data in January 2014 to find ways to increase student achievement, they determined that low student attendance was contributing to low proficiency rates.

“We can’t improve scores if our students are not here,” Veterans Memorial principal Ann Lynch said.

One of the steps Lynch and her team took to change things was to recruit and train a dozen “parent navigators” to help them communicate the importance of regular attendance to parents and guardians and identify issues contributing to absenteeism. Another strategy was for these navigators to reach out to parents whose children are missing a lot of school to enlist them as partners in increasing attendance.

Every day a student does not come to school, his or her family is automatically notified by telephone of the absence. Separately, parent navigators and the school counselor meet regularly to look at aggregate attendance data, discuss trends and decide which families should be contacted personally.

Other strategies include distributing flyers about the importance of being in school and talking about attendance in student assemblies and, when there is a problem, asking parents to pledge to make sure their children come to school. In addition, the school works with families to identify the cause of absences and determine how administrators, counselors and others can help, such as by providing transportation or other social services such as housing assistance. Another strategy the school has used is offering rewards for strong attendance such as school dances, breakfast with the principal, and free homework passes.

The effort seems to be paying off at Veterans Memorial, where the strategy was fully launched in the fall of 2014. The number of absences dropped from 358 during the first 30 days of school year (SY) 2013-2014 to 256 during the same period in SY 2014-2015.  Chronic absenteeism, which is defined as 18 absences or 10 percent of the school year, was cut in half in the fall quarter compared with the previous spring.

Better Collaboration Between State and Districts

The campaign to increase attendance at Veterans Memorial Elementary is supported by school turnaround experts at the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) and represents just one example of a shift that has occurred in the relationship between RIDE and its lowest-performing schools and districts. In the past, when RIDE intervened at a school to help improve student achievement, it generally just pressed a school to meet the goal it had set for itself rather than help the school do so. Now, RIDE staff meet throughout the year with school and district leaders to identify problems, set goals to solve them, and use data to track progress.

This image is a quote from Joshua Laplante, the principal at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. It reads, "Before, it appeared to be strictly about monitoring. We'd make a claim. They'd check for compliance. There is much more support now."“We feel like this is a great support to us,” Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo said. “We don’t feel like this has been a hammer coming down on the schools’ heads. Traditionally, you heard the State was coming and you wanted to run the other way.”

RIDE is supporting about 30 schools, including Veterans Memorial, in this manner. RIDE used part of its Federal Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant funds to pay the additional cost of hiring specialists to assist the districts and schools. Rhode Island also is taking advantage of the flexibility awarded to some States that requested waivers from some Elementary and Secondary Education Act provisions. So, for example, schools identified for intervention in the State no longer have to choose only from one of four models for whole-school reform (closure, restart, transformation or turnaround). Instead, they can choose from a menu of interventions that target the school’s needs. While there are still requirements about how many strategies must be chosen and what types, schools are able to take a much more tailored approach.

Under the old turnaround process in Rhode Island, schools needing to make significant changes based on poor performance would create improvement plans, as mandated by RIDE, and submit quarterly progress reports. RIDE staff would then review the documents and meet with the schools to discuss tasks that had not been completed, RIDE Transformation Specialist Sarah Anderson said. RIDE offered schools little hands-on help in meeting its goals. That wasn’t working.

Wanting to find an approach that would be more productive, transformation specialists began meeting with the schools, beginning in spring 2013, four times a year to help them collect and analyze a variety of data and discuss ways to adjust their improvement plans to speed their progress, Anderson said.

In the case of Veterans Memorial, the RIDE staff started meeting with a team that included the principal and other school and district leaders in 2014. They worked together to devise the strategy for increasing attendance. Typically, when the agreed-upon strategies are working, the team will stick with them. If not, however, there is both an opportunity to discuss the strategy’s shortcomings and the flexibility to shift gears.

School Improvement Plan Updated Frequently

Now, a school’s improvement plan “is a working-living document,” said Carolyn Johnston, principal of the Lillian Feinstein Elementary School at Sacket Street in Providence. She said the plan should reflect the adjustments made along the way. “This process allows schools to say this isn’t working and not feel threatened,” she said.

Central Falls High School principal Joshua Laplante also appreciates the new partnership with RIDE. “You can’t work in isolation,” he said. “We sit there with RIDE and we walk through our goals and we walk through next steps. Before, it appeared to be strictly about monitoring. We’d make a claim. They’d check for compliance. There is much more support now.”

Using Data to Improve

This image is a screenshot of a website. The screenshot shows the School Turnaround Performance Management Toolkit, organized by the four steps of the Performance Management Framework: Clarity of Outcomes and Theory of Action, Alignment of Resources, Collection and Use of Data, and Accountability for Results. An overview of the third step—Collection and Use of Data—appears in the screenshot but the text is too small to read.

Learn how RIDE and other States are helping schools focus on data and get results on the Reform Support Network’s Performance Management Toolkit.

A hallmark of the quarterly meetings is their intense focus on data. Typically, each meeting has a focus, zeroing in on one or two major problems, rather than going over a lot of issues plaguing the school.

RIDE created customized “data dashboards” to help the schools keep track of their progress. The dashboards include schools’ interim assessment data, survey data and information collected during principals’ observations of classroom instruction. Each school’s dashboard includes information that is of particular interest to the school―in the case of Veterans Memorial, detailed attendance data.

In this way, RIDE is pushing schools to think about and look at data more proactively, Johnston said. “Say an intervention involves using six core instructional strategies to improve learning in the classroom. We don’t just then sit and wait to see student outcome data. We do walkthroughs and conduct teacher surveys, so we can say ‘six out of 10 classrooms this week were using X instructional practice.’” Anderson said that kind of granular data were too often overlooked in the past.

The next steps agreed to by the school, the district, and RIDE also are displayed on the dashboard.

Building Capacity to Support Schools and Districts

University of Connecticut School of Education Professor Jennie Weiner, an expert in school reform and school leadership who helped create RIDE’s data dashboards, said she hopes the schools will soon move away from needing extensive help from RIDE.

“We’re hoping to see a cultural shift,” Weiner said. “We want schools to be able to think this way and do this work on their own without RIDE eventually. They look at student outcome data, but this way they also look at other data, including qualitative and survey data to see if interventions they’ve put in place are being rolled out well and received well.”

It looks like that’s beginning to happen broadly in Rhode Island. Gallo even has implemented quarterly meetings which resemble the meetings facilitated by RIDE, in schools that are not identified for State intervention.

“This means that if I’m offering professional development, teachers are completing an evaluation on the way out the door,” she said. “I’m looking at all the data, including qualitative data. We’re using this same format in the schools that are not labeled as low performing and asking the same questions. Everyone here now understands the importance of data.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Focus on data. The first step in putting together a new school improvement plan and monitoring progress should be examining a variety of relevant data, not just student outcome data.
  • Play a support role. States should examine how they can both monitor for compliance and better support schools struggling to turn around low achievement.
  • Meet more than once a year. States should consider scheduling quarterly rather than annual school improvement meetings with districts and schools identified as needing improvement.
  • Pay attention to what the adults are doing. When trying to bring about change in schools, examine how both adults and students are changing how they work and learn.

 

Resources:

Sample Data Dashboard

School Turnaround Performance Management Toolkit: Collection and Use of Data

Tennessee Principals Receive Coaching on Observing Teachers and Providing Feedback

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Accurate observations pinpoint strengths and weaknesses, and specific feedback helps teachers improve instruction, leading to increases in student learning.

At the end of school year (SY) 2011–2012, the principal at Erin Elementary School in Houston County, Tennessee judged nearly 90 percent of the school’s teachers to be exceeding expectations based on observations of their classroom performances.

But, according to results of the State’s assessment system, their students weren’t doing nearly so well.

How could this be?

The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) discovered the mismatch at Erin and many others when it analyzed results from the first year schools used a new teacher evaluation system that includes multiple measures such as test scores, observations, student surveys and other elements to help identify teachers strengths and areas for improvement.

Many States have introduced such evaluation systems over the past several years, responding to strong evidence that teaching is the single biggest in-school influence on student learning. However, if principals cannot accurately discern differences in the performances they observe, they cannot provide teachers constructive feedback on how they can do more to increase student achievement.

After its analysis, the State identified schools with the biggest gaps between principals’ observations and student achievement. It then hired eight coaches over the next two years to work with the principals at 116 schools.

Improved Feedback, Improved Teaching, Improved Student Achievement

After the coaching, principals were able to give teachers better feedback, teachers’ performance improved and student learning accelerated, according to a State analysis. Luke Kohlmoos, the former director of evaluation at the TDOE, said observation scores changed immediately after coaching. But, he said, that was not the goal.

“The change is what happens after you score accurately,” Kohlmoos said.  “This is about feedback and development of teachers; it’s not necessarily about the number of teachers getting high observation scores.”

Kohlmoos said the coaching “was way more effective than anticipated” in terms of the improvements in teaching that resulted.

Student achievement across the schools that received coaching in the first year rose, on average, faster than the gains made statewide. The same thing happened during the second year of coaching at other schools in SY 2013-2014. “We are very optimistic that these gains are real,” Kohlmoos said.

But he said the State won’t know for sure until the results have been reviewed independently. He said the State is doing a formal evaluation to determine if the changes in student achievement were due to the coaching, resulted from other factors or occurred by chance.

Meanwhile, the State is continuing the coaching in SY 2014–2015, using a combination of State funds and foundation grants. For the current school year, in addition to working with schools with large disparities in ratings, coaches will work with principals’ supervisors to help them.

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Rural District Collaboration Increases Opportunities for Ohio Students and Teachers

State Superintendent Richard Ross stands with staff members at the front of a classroom. Meanwhile, four students sit at tables at the front of the classroom working on laptops.

State Superintendent Richard Ross visits a dual enrollment class at Maysville Local Schools in September 2014. Photo Credit: Battelle for Kids

More advanced classes, more professional learning available when small districts work together.

Like small school districts in rural areas across the United States, those in the Appalachia region of Ohio face particular challenges—teachers are harder to recruit and retain, professional learning opportunities are infrequent for the teachers who are there, and advanced classes are limited because there are too few students to justify offering them. Not surprisingly, perhaps, only 30 percent of those who graduate from this area of southeast Ohio go straight to college, less than half the national rate. The percentage of adults over the age of 25 with college degrees in the region is 12 percent, also less than half the national rate.

Believing that they could better address those issues if they worked together, 21 small school districts in the southeastern part of the State decided in the fall of 2009 to form the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative (OAC). The districts were small, with some having fewer than 500 students. Collectively, however, they had 34,000 students; only Columbus and Cleveland school districts had more.

The districts in the OAC have leveraged this partnership to attract more than $25 million in public and private grants from a variety of sources, including the State’s Race to the Top grant and Straight A Innovation Fund. That financial support made it possible to give teachers more opportunities for professional learning about formative instructional practices, the use of value-added data to adjust their instruction, college and career readiness planning, and change leadership. It also connected them with peers in other districts who they can learn from, and helped increase the number of advanced classes offered across the collaborative.

“The glue that brought the districts together was the goal of enhancing opportunities for kids in rural communities,” said Brad Mitchell, who facilitates the collaborative on behalf of Battelle for Kids, a Columbus, Ohio-based not-for-profit that works with school districts on instructional improvement through the use of data.

Those efforts are paying off: the graduation rate among the districts increased from 85 percent in 2010 to 92 percent in 2012, more students are earning college credits while still in high school, more students are taking the ACT college entrance examination, and college enrollment is up.

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Ohio Teachers Leading Transition to New Standards

Elizabeth Johnson (standing), a teacher at Ironton High School and a member of the Ohio Network of Regional Leaders for mathematics, reports to her District Leadership Team on students’ progress toward mastering Ohio’s New Learning Standards for mathematics. To her right is Bill Dressel, the Curriculum and Federal Programs Director of the Ironton City Schools. She is looking over the shoulder of Lee Anne Mullens, from the high school’s English Department. On her left around the table are Joe Rowe, principal; Travis Kleinman, high school guidance counselor; and Nancy Sutton, intervention specialist. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Johnson

Elizabeth Johnson (standing), a teacher at Ironton High School and a member of the Ohio Network of Regional Leaders, reports to her District Leadership Team on students’ progress toward mastering Ohio’s New Learning Standards for mathematics. To her right is Bill Dressel, Curriculum and Federal Programs Director of the Ironton City Schools. She is looking over the shoulder of Lee Anne Mullens, from the high school’s English Department. On her left around the table are Joe Rowe, principal; Travis Kleinman, high school guidance counselor; and Nancy Sutton, intervention specialist. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Johnson.

Teachers are advising the State, working with colleagues, and designing a model curriculum aligned with college- and career-ready standards.

Elizabeth Johnson has taught mathematics for 10 years in Ironton, Ohio, a town of about 11,000 people along the Ohio River. She also serves on the teacher leadership team at Ironton High School, as well as the building and district leadership teams.

Given all of her experiences as a leader, it wasn’t surprising that she also was one of about 50 educators who the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) asked in 2013 to join the State’s Network of Regional Leaders (NRL) for mathematics. The mathematics network is one of five in the State that were convened by the ODE to help lead teachers and school districts through the transition to new, more rigorous college- and career-ready standards and new assessments to go along with them.

Like other States, Ohio is using part of its grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program to support the writing of model curricula for mathematics and English language arts aligned with those standards, develop formative assessments, train teachers and redesign teacher evaluation and feedback systems.

In doing so, the State has made it a priority to ensure that frontline educators such as Johnson—teachers, coaches, mentors and curriculum developers—are taking the lead in these activities. They advise the State on how its policies are affecting their schools and classrooms and also help their colleagues understand and adjust to the changes that lie ahead of them.

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Tools for State and District Leaders: Personalized Learning Case Studies

Two classes of students work on laptops throughout a large iPrep mathematics classroom. Two teachers  walk around the room engaging students as they work on their laptops.

Middle school students work at their own pace in iPrep mathematics classrooms in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Photo Credit: Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Promising practices and lessons learned from four Race to the Top – District grantees released.

The traditional model of education has been based on a teacher delivering a fixed curriculum at a fixed pace. Educators across the country have increasingly been adopting a personalized learning approach that will prepare students to succeed in a 21st century, globally competitive society. Through this approach, educators can customize lessons based on the pace and learning style of each student and can actively engage the student by centering learning on student interests, progress, and mastery.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) supports school districts’ efforts to personalize and enhance student learning through Race to the Top – District (RTT-D) grants. The RTT-D program supports bold, locally directed improvements in learning and teaching that will directly improve student achievement. RTT-D districts serve as innovation laboratories, advancing new ways to educate students. OII recently released a report that highlights some of these districts’ initial experiences, which is intended to serve as a resource for school leaders pursuing a path to personalizing student learning.

Personalized Learning in Progress: Case Studies of Four Race to the Top-District Grantees’ Early Implementation shares the experiences of four diverse school districts as they adopt personalized learning approaches. The four districts — Iredell-Statesville Schools (N.C.), Miami-Dade County Public Schools (Fla.), New Haven Unified School District (Calif.), and Metropolitan School District of Warren Township (Ind.) — represent a range of geographies, student populations, academic content areas, and approaches to personalized learning.

Each district developed its own strategy catered to its students’ unique needs. For example, Miami-Dade County Public Schools focused its personalized learning efforts on a single subject area with a demonstrated need for reform — middle school mathematics. The district expanded their iPrep Academy concept that had been in operation in one high school since 2010. With the RTT-D support, iPrep Math learning centers were created at each of the district’s 49 middle schools starting in the 2013-2014 school year. This involved transforming the physical classroom environments and changing teaching methods to better support personalized learning. The new centers and personalized learning approach, for instance, fostered settings in which three teachers could work collaboratively with a class of 60 students at the same time.

Read more about the case studies and the four school districts through this post on the OII home page. Or click here to read and download Personalized Learning in Progress: Case Studies of Four Race to the Top-District Grantees’ Early Implementation.

New York State Training Aspiring Teachers in the Classroom

Eric Reisweber, who studied to be an earth science teacher in SUNY Cortland’s Undergraduate Clinically Rich Teacher Preparation program, teaching a lesson during his internship at  Binghamton High School in Binghamton, New York during the spring semester of SY 2013-2014.

Eric Reisweber, who studied to be an earth science teacher in SUNY Cortland’s Undergraduate Clinically Rich Teacher Preparation program, teaching a lesson during his internship at Binghamton High School in Binghamton, New York during the spring semester of SY 2013-2014. Photo Credit: Michael Bersani.

New teachers in New York are becoming better prepared to help students meet college- and career- ready standards.

Nichole Mantas felt her first year as a high school biology teacher at Lansingburgh High School in Troy, New York was far smoother than she had anticipated. “It was like I was already a mile into this yearlong race, whereas other teachers I worked with were entering at the starting line,” she said of her experiences in school year (SY) 2013-1014.

Mantas said she knew just what to expect, and how to set herself up for success because she had already spent a full year as an intern co-teaching science with a seasoned educator. One month into that internship, she had begun leading an Advanced Placement biology course, designing lab experiments and creating lesson plans—all while benefiting from expert guidance and coaching.

The combination of the teaching experience and mentoring during the internship helped her hone her craft quickly, she said.  “My mentor gave me a lot of freedom to try new things, but she was always there to give me feedback and we were constantly bouncing ideas off of each other,” she said.

The internship was a key component of Mantas’ ‘Clinically Rich’ Master’s program at Union Graduate College, one of 12 institutions across New York State awarded pilot grants from the New York State Education Department. Supported through the State’s Race to the Top grant, the program aims to strengthen teacher preparation programs and This chart lists the twelve institutions offering Clinically Rich programs and the degrees offered by those institutions. American Museum of Natural History offers a Master’s Degree in Teaching with a specialization in Earth Science for Grades 7–12. Adelphi University offers a Master’s Degree in Science Education with a Bilingual Extension for Grades 7–12. Fordham University offers a Master’s Degree in Adolescent Education in Mathematics, Science, TESOL and SWD for Grades 7–12. Lehman College (CUNY) offers a Master’s Degree in Childhood Education with a specialization in Mathematics, English Learner/Bilingual and Special Education. SUNY Oswego offers  Bachelor’s Degree in TESOL, Master’s Degree in Childhood Education, and Master of Arts in Teaching in Secondary Special Education and Mathematics/Science or TESOL. Mercy College offers a Master of Science in Mathematics Education and a certificate in Special Education. New York University offers a Master’s Degree in Secondary Science (Biology, Chemistry or Physics). Queens College (CUNY) offers a Master of Arts in Teaching in Adolescent Science Education. SUNY Albany offers a Master’s Degree in Special Education, with residence in Adolescent Education and a concentration in Literacy. SUNY Cortland offers Adolescent Math and Science 7–12 Certification. Syracuse University offers a Master’s Degree in Special Education. Union Graduate College offers a Master’s Degree in Life Sciences, Physical Sciences or Mathematics/Computer Technology.establish partnerships with high- needs schools to help them address perennial shortages of candidates in areas such as mathematics, science, and special education.

The internships offered by the Clinically Rich programs last for an average of 10 months, during which the teacher candidates spend five days a week in classrooms. Research shows that this approach familiarizes novices with the realities of classrooms and makes it less likely that they will leave teaching after only a few years. Research by Richard Ingersoll, Professor of Sociology and Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Consortium on Chicago School Research shows that an estimated 50 percent of new teachers in high needs schools leave within the first five years.

Class assignments in the pilot programs are grounded in the internship experiences, strengthening the connection between theory and practice. As a result, it is hoped, new teachers in high-need schools will be more effective and more likely to stay on the job.

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Kit Carson: Getting Serious about Literacy

Photo Credit: Kit Carson Academy, Clark County Schools.

Photo Credit: Kit Carson Academy, Clark County Schools.

When Kit Carson International Academy (Kit Carson), an elementary school serving grades PK-5, in Las Vegas, Nevada was identified as one of the lowest-performing schools in the state in 2009, only 30-34% of the students were proficient in English language arts and 40-44% of students were proficient in math. Kit Carson and Clark County School District staff knew that they had to make dramatic changes.  To improve instruction and raise student achievement, they needed a place to start, so although math scores at Kit Carson weren’t particularly high, the leadership team decided to focus their efforts on building students’ reading skills.   The good news: Those efforts are paying off.   Kit Carson increased reading proficiency by over 30 percentage points in just the first three years.

In 2010, with assistance from a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants (SIG) program, Kit Carson began making some of the changes that would be necessary to improve student achievement.   Students needed more time to focus on reading, and teachers needed support for efforts to make reading instruction consistent across the school as well as to meet students’ needs. That led to the school’s decision to overhaul its program by investing in additional learning time focused on reading and providing a common schoolwide approach to target reading instruction and support for teachers.

Time was added to the school day to offer additional literacy support, instruction was refocused, and teachers received coaching and collaborated to help students get the results they knew they could produce. Building teachers’ literacy instruction skills, providing support for lesson planning, and implementing a new walk-through monitoring process to ensure effective use of literacy strategies in the classroom became the focus of their teachers’ training and expectations.  According to Kit Carson’s principal, “reflecting on the alignment between expectations, monitoring and feedback for teachers is ongoing and critical to minimizing variation in the quality of reading instruction.”

The outcomes are noteworthy and exciting.  By the end of the first year alone, student proficiency in reading skyrocketed by more than 10 percentage points, and the focus on reading influenced student performance in math as well, with math proficiency increasing by more than 15 percentage points.  Kit Carson’s thoughtful planning, targeted interventions, continuous adaptation, and relentless focus on improving reading instruction offer a useful example and promising practice for schools and districts across the country.  To learn more about Kit Carson’s strategies for increasing learning time for literacy instruction, read the Kit Carson International Academy practice profile.

The Office of State Support is highlighting promising practices from the implementation of the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program in schools, districts, and states across the country.  For more profiles, visit: http://www.ed.gov/programs/sif/sigprofiles/index.html

Florida County Uses Technology to Engage Students and Innovate in the Classroom

Three students sit at a table together during a class lesson. One of the students holds an IPad, and all three students are looking at the device to engage in the lesson.

Citrus Spring Middle School students work with their devices as part of Citrus County School District’s technology initiative. Photo Credit: Dan Koch.

States and districts are investing in technology to support students’ progress towards college and career readiness.

Citrus County School District in rural central Florida is among a growing number of school districts across the country giving students opportunities to take control of their own learning, collaborate with others, and explore entire digital libraries of content by providing them with iPads or laptops. These “one-to-one” initiatives allow teachers to customize students’ lessons to their needs, blend outside of school and in-class learning, and monitor students’ progress in real time.

Citrus County is earning high marks from State officials, students, and teachers for ensuring that technology is actually transforming teaching and learning. In school year (SY) 2011-2012 the district used a Race to the Top grant to put high-speed wireless Internet in all of its schools.  The iPads came a year later, but only for students in grade seven in one school.  The following year the pilot was expanded to various grades and schools. Through the pilot, school leaders and educators gained insight on how to use the technology to improve instruction, ways in which teachers can benefit from related professional development, and ways to encourage responsible use of the iPads, such as with a terms-of-use agreement.

After the initial investment, Citrus County has used local funds to provide iPads for about 30 percent of its students; the district plans to expand the program to all 15,000 students by 2018 using local funds. As the program grew, administrators heard from teachers about the kind of professional development they wanted, and tried to meet those needs with targeted training and time.

“We didn’t want these to simply be used for things like note taking or as a place to go for electronic worksheets,” said Kathy Androski, a media specialist at Citrus Springs Middle School who coaches her fellow teachers on how to use the technology. “We wanted the students using technology to really ratchet up their learning experience.”  Citrus County educators say that might mean students going outdoors for a science lesson and using the iPad’s camera, video camera, or audio recorder to document their observations.  Then, they might come inside and use the same iPad to create a PowerPoint or a spreadsheet, or make a movie about what they learned and observed.

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Georgia Innovation Fund Projects Open Students’ Minds to What is Possible

Sixth grade students conduct a water testing experiment in a Soil, Water Quality, and Weather course. This class serves as an introduction to environmental studies through STEM. While this class is designed to allow exploration in STEM, the primary focus of student learning coincides with sixth grade curriculum in Earth Science with an emphasis on weather, soil/water quality. Photo Credit: Rockdale STEM Academy

Sixth grade students conduct a water testing experiment in a Soil, Water Quality, and Weather course. This class serves as an introduction to environmental studies through STEM. While this class is designed to allow exploration in STEM, the primary focus of student learning coincides with sixth grade curriculum in Earth Science with an emphasis on weather, soil/water quality. Photo Credit: Rockdale STEM Academy

Many of the projects focus on boosting students’ interest in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Last year at Rockdale 21st Century Academy of Environmental Studies, eighth grader Yasin learned about magnetism, electricity and circuits in his Energy and Sustainable Technology course. His classmates, Imani and Max, figured out how to create solar power through wind turbines and solar panels. These hands-on learning experiences are part of a rigorous sequence of courses (others include biomedical engineering, meteorology and forensics) at Rockdale, one of only two STEM-focused middle school programs in Georgia.

The goal of the middle school, located east of Atlanta in Rockdale County, is to encourage students to enter a rigorous STEM-focused high school and ultimately go into science-based careers. That is just what Max, Yasin and Imani want to do: Max, a medical professional; Yasin, an engineer; and Imani, a pediatric neurosurgeon.

The students spoke about their school and their plans in a video that describes the academy’s program and its founding.

The academy is one of 23 projects launched or expanded since 2011 with financial support from Georgia’s Innovation Fund, which was in turn underwritten by the State’s Federal Race to the Top grant. Projects include the opening of four new public charter schools with a STEM focus, the development of new STEM curricula, the recruitment of STEM educators to teach in rural areas and new approaches to teacher and principal preparation and support. While not all of the projects were STEM-focused, all of them were designed to increase college and career readiness.

It is still too early to fully assess the impact of the programs, but initial indicators are positive. A survey of 928 students who participated in innovation fund projects found significant increases in self-management skills and motivation to pursue STEM-related careers. Some of the programs are reporting notable gains in on-time graduation rates and the number of college credits earned by participants.

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