All STEM’d Up!

Posted by Skip Johnson on November 17, 2013

All STEM'd Up with man on motorcycle at left(to the tune of Elvis’ All Shook Up)

A well we done our plan
What’s right with us?
We’re working really hard and creatin’ no fuss
Our peers say we’re actin’ wild and smug
We’re a determined clan
We’re all STEM’d Up!
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!

Our plans aren’t shaky and our minds aren’t weak
We are standin’, standin’ on our own two feet
We can thank ourselves to have such luck
We’re a determined clan
We’re all STEM’d Up!
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!

Please don’t figure to read our minds
We might look shook up but we are feelin’ fine
When we present those lessons we love best
Our students so engage, it scares us to death

When we touch their minds, it’s a chill we got
Now let’s study a volcano that’s hot-hot-hot
We are proud to say this is our loving cup
We’re a determined clan
We’re all STEM’d Up!
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!

Our tongues are steady when we need to speak
Our insides are excited as a circuit that is tweaked
There is no cure for this STEM gold mine
We’re gonna keep this system ’cause it’s so fine

We’re a determined clan
We’re all STEM’d Up!
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!
We’re all STEM’d Up!

Yes, at El Crystal Elementary School we are ALL STEM’d UP! On Wednesday, November 7, 2012, the governing board made El Crystal the first STEM Magnet School in the San Bruno Park School District,.  The next morning, we were full “STEM” ahead.  The 9 teachers and I have accomplished a lot since then:

  • Wrote the STEM Curriculum for grades Kindergarten through fifth grade.
  • Participated in three weeks of self-determined professional development.
  • Conducted four informational meetings for families from other schools in our district.
  • Generated an informational brochure that we distributed throughout our area.
  • Achieved two $20,000.00 grants.
  • Worked closely with the STEM Center at the San Mateo County Office of Education to fine tune our curriculum.
  • Gave three presentations to the governing board to share our progress.
  • Invited to share our program at the Orange County Office of Education.
  • Arranged a partnership through a  Memorandum of Understanding with Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California to provide us with academic support in science and math focused on creating a student-centered learning environment.
  • Created a partnership with Walmart, whose eCommerce headquarters are in San Bruno.
  • Created a partnership with Facebook who replaced twenty-two of our computers that were stolen.
  • Established an advisory committee composed of parents, community members and representatives from Intel, Facebook, Walmart, and Gilead Sciences.
  • Remodeled our media center to accommodate STEM activities.

Earlier this month, we took time out to reflect upon our progress to date:

What is going well?

  • Student engagement in learning has visibly increased.
  • Students are demonstrating a positive attitude towards all aspects of the school including behavior and attendance to learning.
  • Teacher collaboration in grade alike and across grades has been a very positive outcome of STEM.
  • There is a tremendous increase in hands-on learning activities at all grade levels.
  • Teachers believe they are creating a more student-centered learning environment.
  • Overall, staff believes they are achieving deeper levels or understanding and learning with their students.
  • In most classes, parents are eagerly helping with needed supplies for all types of STEM activities
  • Parents report that they are pleased with our new program; that their children come home excited about the daily activities in their classrooms; and that they really like the teaching staff 

What needs to improve?

  • Generally, parents from families that have transferred into our program from outside our attendance area display higher levels of participation than those for whom this is their home school.
  • We have discovered that implementing STEM activities takes much more time than anticipated (not that this can be changed).

What to do differently if we had a fresh start?

  • Not write any curriculum for science until the Next Generation Standards were posted in their final form.
  • Spend the first six weeks of the year assessing the levels of the students and their abilities to handle increased STEM activities.
  • Concentrate on putting more procedures into place such as learning how to function in small, collaborative groups.
  • Get to know all the students better before implementing the STEM curriculum even if it meant delaying STEM activities until October.
  • Teach students how to have collaborative conversations and how to behave and function in collaborative groups.
  • Implementing STEM activities in the three lower grades has been more difficult than the two upper grades. Plan for that through practice.
  • Establish the partnership with Notre Dame de Namur earlier. It would have been helpful to have their sage advice when we had our first professional development activities during the last two weeks of June 2013.
  • Figure out a way to allow for more collaboration time for staff members for planning purposes.
  • Provide constructive feedback by observing each other teach STEM activities.
  • Right now most activities are on a trial and error basis. Staff is coming to grips with that level of anxiety.

Principal’s perspective

From my perspective as principal, our implementation of our STEM program, for the most part is going smoothly. My thoughts and observations:

  • I have never seen teachers so hard-working and dedicated to making a program successful.
  • Collaboration is at an all-time high.
  • As principal, I need to get into classrooms more and observe and validate STEM efforts.
  • This program is clearly worth the effort due to observable increases in student engagement and enthusiasm.
  • This is going to take about three years to perfect.
  • The collaboration with Notre Dame is well worth the investment in time and finance.
  • The relationships I built with parents and community members to gather support for our program has improved not only our school culture but my relationship with the school community.
  • The staff and I agree that given the opportunity, we would do this over again.

“The Delegation”

Posted by Skip Johnson on November 30, 2012

Students of El Crystal Elementary SchoolFacing incipient school closure

Last April I found out late on a Friday evening that my school had been unexpectedly listed in a San Bruno Park School District governing board agenda for closure at the end of the 11/12 school year. Up to that point only one other school had been recommended for closure by a consultant firm hired by the district. To say the least, there was a strong reaction from our school community. At the next board meeting dozens of parents and students lambasted the board and district administration. The final vote was 5-0 to not close any school in the upcoming year. However, knowing that with the the state and federal budget crisis, the potential failure of Proposition 30, and the uncertain success of a district sponsored parcel tax (it did not pass on November 5), as a school community we knew that we had to do something to fend off closure for the 13/14 year.

For the last couple of years, the former PTA president had wanted to establish our school, El Crystal, as a charter school. We looked at the district policy but quickly decided that none of us had the time to invest in that endeavor. However, with closure on the near horizon, Vince (the former PTA President) and I sought school and community members to create a mini-task force to discuss and consider other alternatives. By June of 2012 we had a group of between ten and twelve regular participants that met every other Thursday over the summer to strategize a plan. Eventually, we settled on becoming a Magnet School for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Our site has been designated by the district as a Demonstration School for the Integration of Curriculum and Technology for the last four years, so this move seemed logical. The staff had considered this notion during the school year, so it met with their overwhelming support.

Creating a proposal

We created our Magnet School Proposal throughout the summer. Just before school began, four members of what the district soon labelled “the delegation” met with the superintendent and one board member to present our proposal. The delegation was asked to come back with answers to a number of questions posed during the meeting. The district asked that I as principal, should serve as the liaison to the parent group. We met one more time to offer our responses. Our proposal was put on the board agenda in October as a presentation item. The board voted to place our proposal as an action item for the upcoming November 14 board meeting.

Whether or not our proposal gains the needed wind to take flight is in the hands of the governing board. But what I want to share is the extraordinary relationships that were established within the parent group known as the delegation.  Ten regular participants composed the group:

  • Parent and former PTA President who is a property manager
  •  A nurse
  •  A real estate broker
  •  An architect from the community
  •  Manager of a major department store
  •  Director at a bio-medical company
  •  Self-employed illustrator and author
  •  A former parent and community activist
  •  Director of fundraising at a public television station in San Francisco
  •  Webmaster for a non-profit organization

A model of collaboration

I have been an administrator in public schools for almost 25 years. I have facilitated, met with, and participated in numerous parent groups including PTA, ELAC, School Site Councils, and special committees designated by the governing board. Those meetings are usually agendized, focused on support for a specific school or school system, and driven by interest or protocol. Folks can participate or just ‘sit on their hands’ and let others do the talking and decision-making.

The delegation turned out to be a much more intense, personal, and gratifying experience. The participants were open-minded, candid, task-driven, solution-oriented, focused, and respectful to the perspectives brought by each member. The STEM idea was offered by Vince and myself. The group took this notion as a great idea, did research away from the meeting, brought their individual experiences and perspectives into the discussions, read everything given to them, and asked driving and well-thought out questions.  In other words, they were the ideal collaborative group. They were a model for what any teacher would want to see students achieve at any level in any classroom learning any subject.

Invest time with parents in open-ended problem-solving

I said at a recent conference that every principal should figure out a way to invest time regularly with a group of parents and an open-ended problem to solve. From this experience I gained insight to how parents perceive my behavior as an individual and administrator, how they perceive the goals of our school, how they perceive classroom activities, and how they perceive the intended culture of the school. If you asked folks to give you this insight straight up, you would receive nothing. In many ways, these participants were the faces behind the survey questions you send out about your school. I learned that some people perceive me as sometimes too frank and honest, that I could be more tactful, and that there was tremendous respect for how we care for the students in our charge especially with the technology we offer throughout the curriculum. In the final analysis, I learned that collaboration is an essential condition at all levels if any system if it is going to function at its maximum.