Wednesday, February 16, 2011

BT Washington STEM Forum Review

Well, shit.

I mean it. Shit.

I went to the forum with X-man in tow and listened to various Champaign School District representatives and University representatives talk about the new-to-us Magnet School opening in the updated BT Washington building. I expected it to be blah -- like when I left Garden Hills. But it wasn't.

In case you don't know, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Upon walking into the room, we were handed two different schedules. One was a "sample" week (actually it was 4 days, and I've put in a question about what happens on the 5th day) of how a day might run for K/1st graders.

8:45-9 a.m. -- Arrival
9-11:20 a.m. -- Logic Block (reading and math time)
11:20-11:50 -- Lunch
11:50-1:40 -- STEM Block
1:40-2:20 -- Rotating Special #1 (PE, Library, Art, Music)
2:25-3:05 -- Rotating Special #2 (Art, Music, PE, STEM)
3:05-3:15 -- Dismissal

The second flyer was a sample of what each of the students would be learning at each grade level broken down by quarters.

Each grade level would have a Science Unit and a Social Studies Unit. If you are familiar with project approach, that's pretty much what this is. So first quarter the whole school will study Systems and Cycles, but the kindergarteners would study the system of the five senses in science and "our classroom and school community" in social studies. While the third graders would study things like the system of a prairie in science and then families, communities and the national face change: Westward Expansion.

In second quarter, they'd change to studying Structure and Composition as a school. Kindergarteners would focus on Water and States of Matter as a science unit and "Families Past, Present and Across the World" as a Social Studies unit. While second grade would do something like Rocks and Minerals and then "Attempting Fairness and Freedom in Colonial America."

The third quarter would focus on Force and Motion. Kindergarteners would study balls and ramps, while fifth graders would study Atmospheric Science and "Opportunity and Inequality: Land Ownership, Expansion and Housing."

The last quarter would be studying Human Impact and Sustainability. This quarter makes me squeal because it shows the students how what they're learning about matters to the world around them. For example, kindergarteners would learn about where food comes from and then studying "The Community, Neighborhoods and Community Helpers." While second graders study Recycling and "Organizing for Fairness and Freedom -- In Our Lives, the Early Nation and Across the world."

Each of the project approach sections would be integrated into the math and reading elements of the day. They'd also be integrated into the specials. Since it's a new school, there will be all kinds of special bells and whistles including desktop and laptop computers, smart boards, iPads, digital cameras, flip cameras, the fancy STEM science lab, community learning environments, etc.

In addition, although BT Washington will continue to have gifted programs, they're really envisioning a school-wide change in education. They want students to be more communal and learn from each other and inspire each other. That means, the word "self-contained" really goes out the window.

Another interesting element -- they won't be teaching toward No Child Left Behind tests directly. I asked the panel, and their response was that a child that is curious and interested in learning and engaged in their education will learn the elements needed to test well naturally rather than with sit-down focused test taking instruction.

Really? Because it's my wet dream to hear a public school official say that. That's what they said is their philosophy.

They also said that after the first year there will be a full evaluation of the program that parents and students will help complete to find out what changes they'll need to make moving forward. And although there is no current plan to create a STEM system in the middle school level, if the magnet school is successful, they can see that this type of learning will likely continue down the road into higher-level educational environments.

The school also will be using something called Renzulli Learning as a way to keep parents, teachers and students on the same page moving forward. I looked over the site and it appears that children are able to create "learner" profiles and online academics can be tailored to how the student learns the best. Parents can track how their students are doing, provide additional enrichment activities at home and communicate with the teachers. I like all things student-focused, and supportive for parents, so hooray.

The administration is working on solidifying partnerships with the University of Illinois as well as the University Laboratory High School. The idea is that BT Washington students will hopefully be at the university enough times each semester that they won't think of the trips as "field trips" but rather an extension of their own school.

The issue of funding was raised and the principal stated that right now the district has the money to fund the premium cost of STEM because they want it to succeed. This is in the district's budget and is not dependent on primarily state and federal monies. They're committed. Down the road? Who knows.

What are some of the issues that the audience were worried about? Mostly that gender could be an issue. The assumption from the crowd was that most of the people that would try to get in early for the program would be boys, and there is no "gender" consideration in the lottery.

In essence, they said a lot of words that I wanted to hear:

Available to all.
Future Jobs.
Individual learning.
Real world.

Now here's the question. Do I get excited about the bright, shiny new thing in local education? Or do I pick another school and watch BT Washington develop for a while and reconsider it if my child tests into gifted at second grade so they can work the kinks out?

My strength, as a person, has always been in my ability to make something great out of nothing. As a parent, I think I could be a real asset here as they get their feet on the ground. But I'm also nervous. I don't trust the school district. I hate that so many new schools have so much, while so many older schools have so little. I know it's the difference in capital budgets and operating budgets (as my sister reminded me tonight). But I still find it frustrating and down right offensive, really.

What do I do? I have a kid who has been using the project approach forever. He's a science geek all the way... My gut says to keep Carrie Busey as my number 1. But my brain said, "Look into this more. It might be more "X-man" than "Loosey," but I feel like I'm balancing his intellectual needs with his emotional needs." Does that make sense?

Unfortunately, I don't have that many more days. Early registration for the Magnet School ends on Feb. 28. I have today, Friday and Monday, Feb. 28th, since I'll be in Paris.

And then there's the fact that I haven't been able to get my spouse on the phone all night, and my poor sister had to listen to my bewilderment as I literally gnawed through my concerns over not one but two 18 Rabbits Cheeky Cherry Chocolate granola bars.

I've given the lecture that Granola really isn't all that good for you, right? Yet, I love these bars. Love them. Sigh. I still feel like gnawing.

***MacTroll just called. And he pointed out to me something we have to think about. "Remember when Master Hyong told you that he missed out on just playing blocks with his son because he was at work all the time. Maybe we should think about how much we liked meeting Mr. Scott and Mrs. Carswell and how they made us feel good about the idea that he'll still be a little kid in kindergarten. Maybe we should just let him enjoy being a little kid in a neighborhood that he loves."


Anonymous said...

Hey Dana,
It sounds like a cool new school but I noticed that all the units you discussed them studying- are all units the kids already do throughout Unit 4- well at least they do at Robeson- PJ and I have both gone in to help with balls and ramps and the forces in motion units. Gillian has done all the others as well. The last two years Gillian has done a number of project based units and studies.

I do really like the idea of not teaching to the test though!

Such a tough decision- good luck.

~rachel~ said...

I Think it sounds great! And honestly, maybe it's just me, but I feel lik kindergarten is taking away the getting to be a kid days. They might have a lot more free/play time than 1st grade. But they are doing so much more than I did in kindegarten.

I'm sure it's a tough decision! Is there any concern over a child who might be in the magnet school and later go to a "regular school" like would they behind in certain areas compared to the other kids?

Looseyfur said...

Thanks for your input! I'm aware that the units are similar because by law they have to be all learning basically the same thing, but the intensity and length at which they study each unit will be different from the traditional path. (Or so they say...)

There's not an issue of being behind because the curriculum or the things that they cover are similar. They'll just be used to learning a different way than students going through a "traditional" model.

And yes, you're right. Kindergarten now is much more like when we were in first grade. Mrs. Carswell at Carrie Busey pointed that out immediately on our tour. It's why they keep housekeeping and other physical/pretend play units in the classroom at Carrie Busey and a few of few of the other schools. But it's up to each school.

~rachel~ said...

That makes sense- I still do think it sounds like a great program! I hope it works out for them.

Yeah Rowan's room has all that stuff to, I wonder how often they use it...he can't remember anything so I get nothing from him! :) I kind of wish I had known ahead of time that kindergarten isn't required, I think we might have skipped it and just done stuff at home so he'd be caught up for 1st...maybe with Eli.

The Fearless Freak said...

I was going to post the same thing as Sheila. MF is starting balls and ramps this week and WF has done the prairie, which lasted about 5 weeks and included a trip to the EAM in Mahomet and a prairie tour. They've also done the westward expansion unit, although it didn't last that long but they did have a project with it where they had to team up and do a poster on some aspect of westward expansion. WF did "Women of the Prairie" :)

And I totally agree that K is like 1st grade used to be and preschool is much more like K. It is why I think every kid should have a solid and consistent preschool experience. The kids that don't, have no real basis to begin K and end up struggling. WF was a prime example of this :(

Looseyfur said...

I'm meeting with Ms. Fuller tomorrow, so I can ask some curriculum questions. I also want to get a better feel about the school when I'm there. I have a person who never has a bad word to say about anyone voice a concern over the administration... which to me is a bit of a flag, because I totally trust her judgment. It's curious this whole process. It's like walking around lifting up rocks and wondering if I'll find fungus, treasure or oddly enough treasured fungus.

Debra said...

For what it is worth... I think you would be a good asset for the magnet program. You are motivated and have tons of contacts and I just agree with your assertion that you could help get it up and started. But as I have said before... he will do awesome in any school setting. He has parents who love him and are involved in his eduction