Tenn. Schools Chief Digs Deep for STEM Learning
- Expertise: STEM Learning
- Position: Director of Schools
- District: Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools, Tenn.
Last summer, about 100 public school teachers of all grade levels were scattered throughout the city of Clarksville, Tenn.—at the fire department, the mayor’s office, an architecture firm, a metal-processing plant—shadowing business and government employees for a week at a time. The teachers spent their days learning practical, real-world skills, like how to fortify a cement structure or detect moisture in a high-vaulted ceiling, and brainstorming ways to incorporate what they were learning into their next year’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics lessons.
The externship program is the brainchild of B.J. Worthington, a 28-year veteran in the 31,000-student Clarksville-Montgomery County school system. Two years ago, by a unanimous school board vote and what some have described as popular demand from the community, Mr. Worthington, 53, became the director of schools (the district’s title for superintendent) for the district, located about 50 miles northwest of Nashville. A former high school science teacher and principal, Mr. Worthington bolstered the district’s STEM focus, spurred by a federal Race to the Top grant that he had helped win, and piloted the externship program with a small cohort of high school teachers that same summer.
Since he took over the district, it has received an additional $10 million in competitive grants from groups including the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity, which oversees the education of the children of members of the military. (About a quarter of the district’s students have parents working at Fort Campbell, across the border in Kentucky.)
Jon Clark, a local architect, hosted several rounds of externs last summer. “We take them out to construction sites, show them how things are being put together, talk about what we do as architects,” he said. “There were a lot of those moments where we’re there sitting around the conference room, and you’d see the lightbulb go [on] and [a teacher] would say, ‘Wow, I’m going to talk to my class about that.’ ”
Periodically, Mr. Clark said, Mr. Worthington would appear on site to visit with both the teachers and their new mentors. “He’s a very hands-on superintendent of schools. He shows up, he’s interested, he’s game on, he’s wanting to further his own education.”
The externships are part of a larger math-science-integration initiative that began four years ago, when the district won $5 million in Race to the Top money for STEM innovation. Mr. Worthington, the chief academic officer at the time, led that initiative and devised a plan that, as he explains it, “would sustain us after the Race to the Top money was gone.” The district piloted combination science and math classes at some grade levels, with an emphasis on project-based learning, or learning “challenges,” in which students learn the science and math standards by identifying and resolving real-world problems that require the use of those skills. For instance, elementary students might have to build a flotation device to get a gingerbread man across water safely, or middle school students must find a way to remix concrete to make a weak beam stronger.
Now, the majority of teachers integrate their math and science lessons using such challenges, said Dale Rudolph, the district’s STEM coordinator.
Solving Real Problems
For example, last summer, Donna Cooper, a 5th grade teacher at Sango Elementary School, externed with a project manager for the city of Clarksville. Since then, she’s had her students work on finding creative ways to address bank erosion at a local marina—which she learned about through her job shadowing—using “the concepts of gravity, friction, mass, and potential and kinetic energy,” she wrote in an email.
Lori Smith, the vice president of the Clarksville-Montgomery PTO and the mother of a 2nd and a 4th grader, said she’s “a huge fan” of the integration initiative.
“What I see in the kids is it changes the way they think,” she added. For example, she said, about a year ago, her son asked her what causes earthquakes. “I told him that the plates shift, and it causes the ground to move. And he said, ‘Well, Mom, I don’t understand that because the Earth is always moving because it’s spinning and moving around the sun. So how is it that that movement is different than the plates in the Earth?'” she recalled. “He was 7.”
According to Becky Jackman, the president of the Clarksville-Montgomery County Education Association, “Everybody knows STEM is [Mr. Worthington’s] passion.” In devising the subject-integration initiative, she said, he and other district leaders “looked at several other models, but they didn’t just do anybody else’s model, they tried to do what was best for our students and teachers.”
With the Race to the Top grant, the district also began a high school STEM Academy—a school-within-a-school that has one teacher in each core subject and an engineer on staff. Students in the district who demonstrate aptitude in math and science can apply to attend the prestigious program.
The teachers there frame lessons around an essential question or theme. One year, students studied how food goes from “conception to consumption.” They dissected a cow uterus, discussed cloning and artificial insemination, and read Temple Grandin’s work on designs for handling livestock.
According to the district’s accountability and assessment supervisor, Kimi Sucharski, Mr. Worthington’s efforts have led to “greater than expected academic growth” in math and science for the district. From 2011-12 to 2012-13, the percentage of 8th grade students achieving grade-level mastery in science moved from 68 percent to 75 percent, and in math, it moved from 42 percent to 52 percent. Value-added scores, which measure growth in student achievement over the previous year, showed better than anticipated gains for grades 3 through 8 in both subjects.
To meet another one of Mr. Worthington’s goals, of “100 percent graduation,” the district has held symbolic graduation ceremonies, had students sign pledge cards, and worked to engage parents and business leaders to make a diploma a priority for students. The graduation rate climbed for several years before 2011-12 and has hovered around 95 percent on Mr. Worthington’s watch. Ms. Smith said the schools’ chief is still looking to improve it.
The 100 percent graduation initiative has received some pushback for being lofty, according to Elise Shelton, a district spokeswoman. However, she noted that it was a goal created “in conjunction with business leaders in the community. We all kept saying, ‘If it is not all, then who do we exclude?'”
One thing stakeholders in the district seem to agree on is that Mr. Worthington has bridged the gap with the community in ways that are overall mutually beneficial. For instance, a requirement of teacher externs “is that they establish a relationship with the business and maintain it throughout the year,” said Ms. Rudolph, the STEM coordinator. The business and community leaders “come into our schools and actually help our students with these science and math problems.”
As Ms. Rudolph sees it, that’s a win-win. The business leaders bring real-world expertise to classrooms, she said, “and we’re building those 21st-century skills our business community has told us they want in our graduates.”