Mich. School Chief Focuses on STEM Learning
- Expertise: STEM Education
- Position: Superintendent
- District: Battle Creek Public Schools, Mich.
Veteran educator Linda S. Hicks arrived in 2010 to lead the city school district in Battle Creek, Mich. Capitalizing on its multinational food manufacturers and nearby research and training facilities, she immediately decided to tap the area’s potential as a source of future STEM-focused jobs for many of her students.
And so she began taking steps to enhance the 5,300-student district’s STEM offerings, including revamping an elementary school and a middle school to bring a STEM focus. In addition, she launched a districtwide STEM education panel to help build a strong and sustained vision for education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“This is the perfect place [for an emphasis on those disciplines], because there are so many future STEM opportunities for kids,” says Hicks.
Noting the district’s high concentration of students living in poverty—about 75 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—she says: “We have some of the most vulnerable children. [They] need to be inspired. … Our kids need to see some real potential opportunities for their future.”
Nicknamed “Cereal City,” Battle Creek is home to Kellogg Co., maker of such well-known products as Special K, Frosted Flakes, and Eggo waffles, plus a major manufacturing facility for Post Foods, which makes Post Raisin Bran, Grape Nuts, and other cereals. In addition, the International Food Training Institute, which trains food-safety officials, is based in the city. And the company Covance recently opened a nutritional-chemistry and food-safety laboratory.
Observers describe Hicks—who is 54 and has 30-plus years’ experience in education as a teacher, principal, and superintendent—as a passionate and hands-on leader who is determined to create meaningful opportunities for disadvantaged young people. And she’s seen as quick to seize on and maximize opportunities to promote enhanced STEM learning, and also to understand the importance of providing a sustained focus on the issue.
“I have been so impressed with her STEM commitment,” says Arelis E. Diaz, a program officer with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which is supporting the district’s involvement with a recently launched STEM teacher-fellowship program in Michigan.
It’s not just her leadership on STEM that has impressed Diaz, but the superintendent’s broader vision and determination to help the district’s students overcome disadvantages to succeed in academics and life.
“She has a courageous spirit about her that I really admire,” Diaz says. “She basically has a ‘no excuses’ approach, that we have to do what it takes to ensure that all students can learn, and that it can be done in Battle Creek public schools.”
One opportunity Hicks seized came when she was approached about having her district take part in a STEM teacher-fellowship program. Developed by the Princeton, N.J.-based Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the program recruits individuals with STEM expertise to become teachers in those subjects. As part of the process, participants get intensive clinical experience in local schools, where each one is paired with a classroom teacher.
Building a Teaching Pool
“Linda really understands that this is about developing capacity and talent within her district,” says Audra M. Watson, a program officer for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. “She sees this as an opportunity to not only grow her own strong and high-quality teachers, but also as an opportunity for her own teachers to continue their professional development.”
Watson notes that the superintendent was personally involved in selecting teachers to mentor the fellows, and also spent time in professional-development meetings with those teachers to “make sure she had a sense of what was happening, to make sure she set the vision.”
Another priority for Hicks has been the new STEM focus at an elementary and a middle school. The elementary school initiated the change in the 2011-12 academic year, while the neighboring middle school transitioned its 6th grade to a STEM-focused curriculum starting this academic year.
“This is one of my babies,” Hicks says of Dudley STEM Elementary School. “I call it my ‘school of inspiration,’ where we put a lot of supports to help kids become familiar with career paths that they hadn’t even thought of, or heard of.”
The district is already the site of the Battle Creek Area Math and Science Center, one of 33 such centers across Michigan that offer STEM coursework to advanced students at the secondary level, as well as provide professional development for teachers and develop curricular materials.
The center will soon move to a major new facility under construction in the city, where Hicks hopes more local students can enroll.
“I want to make sure I have a pipeline so more of my students have an opportunity to go to this school,” she says, even while saying she wants more advanced STEM opportunities in her district’s existing high school, too.
Kathy M. Grosso, the STEM facilitator at Dudley STEM Elementary School, says the core idea in that school is to integrate STEM concepts across the curriculum and better prepare students academically in math and science.
In addition, the school organizes special events that get families involved, such as a recent Night of Flight—held at an airplane hangar in Battle Creek that’s part of Western Michigan University’s school of aviation—that featured a paper-airplane contest for students.
Grosso also was named last year by the superintendent to oversee the new districtwide STEM panel, which is composed of school principals, guidance counselors, teachers, and a representative from a local community college.
To get started, says Grosso, the district is collecting and analyzing data on who enrolls in STEM classes and who succeeds, among other information.
“That will inform the courses that we offer, especially at middle and high schools, and ensure that we’re providing the right kind of support,” especially for African-American and female students, Grosso says, noting two populations that traditionally have been underrepresented in the STEM fields.
She also praises Hicks for being deliberate in seizing opportunities to improve the system’s schools.
“She’s really been good at listening, being aware of what’s happening in the community, and taking advantage of that opportunity,” Grosso says.
The STEM facilitator also finds Hicks to have an inspiring vision that goes beyond rhetoric.
“I really feel committed to her vision because it’s rooted in kids, really rooted in kids, not just saying it,” says Grosso. “A lot of people say ‘students first,’ but that is the foundation of everything she does.”