Image touring a local elementary school. From the moment you enter the front doors, you are greeted by students excited about learning and teachers passionate about teaching.
Visiting one classroom, you see students working in teams. Their task is to design, build and program a robot to navigate through a set of obstacles. You see groups of students utilizing solar panels, different sized pulleys and other available materials to make their robots more energy-efficient. You hear these young people engaged in serious conversations that make it obvious they are applying the knowledge that they’ve previously learned about math, science, and even art and current events. Your tour guide explains that this is part of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program being implemented across the school district. With this new focus on STEM, the tour guide explains, scores on state science tests have been on the rise for this school.
Around the corner in another classroom you see small groups of students working collaboratively on math homework, while the teacher visits one-on-one or in small groups with students. Class time is dedicated to “practicing” math skills, your tour guide explains, while “lessons” from the teacher are recorded and available for students and families to watch as homework. This new “Flipped Math” allows students (and even mom and dad!) to watch the lesson as many times as needed to help them understand the concepts. Following the video, they take a quick online assessment that provides the teacher with a quick snapshot of how well each student understands the lesson. Then the teacher can create more personalized enrichment activities for students to complete the next day in class, while freeing up his or her time to work more closely with students who are struggling. Your tour guide proudly explains that the school district has received national attention for this Flipped Learning and has been featured in many articles appearing in educational magazines. The district even played host to the National Flipped Learning Conference over the summer.
As you tour the school you notice a focus on 21st century learning skills and clearly see examples of the four “Cs” — communication, collaboration, creativity/curiosity and critical thinking. It is evident that there is a strong emphasis on the basic skills of reading, math and science, but what really impresses you is the way staff members identify how students apply this knowledge in a real world way. You frequently see groups of teachers working together to share lesson plans, discuss classroom practices, and discuss what they’ve observed in each other’s classrooms. They pour over spreadsheets, looking at individual student data to come up with interventions and enrichment opportunities to best meet the needs of each student. It is obvious that these teachers take seriously their role in ensuring everyone — students and teachers alike — reach their full potential.
As your tour ends, you listen intently as the guide shares with you the plans for the coming year. Expanding on the district’s mission to create curious individuals, calls for the STEM program to be expanded to STEAM by adding art design. There is also a focus of expanding the four Cs to eight Cs by adding career and life skills, content learning, courageous leadership and cultural competencies. As part of these plans, elementary students would also have world language and culture experiences to help them prepare for an ever-changing world.
What you may or may not know is what I am describing in this column is happening in our schools right now and what we hope will grow in the future. (To learn more, watch a presentation from elementary principals online. Click the link to Bridge to Excellence Spotlight.) As part of the Bridge to Excellence plan — a plan developed in collaboration with community and staff — this is the type of learning experience every Stillwater Area Public School student will have. Some of these things are underway now. Others are dependent on the levy request, in which about 15 percent of the funding would be used to support these types of programs for students. This is our mission, however, and remains our focus. Resources will dictate how quickly we get there.
As a parent of children in the sixth and eighth grades, I am reminded every day of how the world my children are growing up in is so different than the one I experienced. To compete in this world our children will need to be able to work collaboratively, be creative, and understand other cultures and languages. As a parent and superintendent I am pleased by what I see in our schools today, and even more excited to see how our schools will grow stronger in the years to come.
Superintendent Corey Lunn can be contacted via email at [email protected] or by phone at 651-351-8301. Questions can also be sent by mail to Superintendent, Stillwater Area Public Schools, 1875 South Greeley Street, Stillwater, MN 55082. Register for Stillwater Area Public Schools E-News at www.stillwater.k12.mn.us/subscribe.