Indiana

More Indy students will solve challenges, mysteries as project-based STEM courses expand

PHOTO: Scott Eliott
Harshman Middle School is one of five schools in IPS using Project Lead the Way. The program will expand to as many as 20 more schools next year.

At the start of each year, Carissa Prater sets up a mock crime scene in her high school science office.

There’s a body sprawled across the floor and tidbits of evidence throughout the room — a syringe, a toppled table dripping with blood and a nearly empty glass of orange juice. Her biomedical engineering students are given a simple challenge: figure out what happened.

Over the course of the next two semesters, the teens must perform a series of tests, from determining whether a small pile of pills found near the body are prescription or illicit, to fingerprinting the glass and testing for infectious diseases, said Prater, who teaches at East Noble High School outside Fort Wayne.

The students must answer a crucial question: how did the woman die?

“This is not like any class I’ve ever taught before,” Prater said.

It’s an unusual kind of class — but ones like it are about to become a lot more common in Indianapolis.

The course Prater teaches is designed by Project Lead the Way, a non-profit organization that provides training and curriculum for project-based courses in engineering, computer science and biomedical science. The courses challenge students to work together to solve a complex problem, teachers say.

Indianapolis Public Schools plans to dramatically expand its partnership with Project Lead The Way next year thanks to a $250,000 grant from American Structure Point, an Indianapolis-based engineering firm.

“The STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) emphasis is really the 21st century curriculum,” said Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett at an event announcing the grant. “This kind of emphasis needs to be made all over Marion County.”

(Read: Partnership merges high school AP courses, applied science.)

Project Lead The Way is used in schools across the country, offering courses for students from elementary school through high school. IPS currently uses the curriculum in five schools including Harshman Middle School and Arsenal Technical High School. The grant funding will allow the district to expand it to any school where leaders are interested in participating, district officials said.

The district expects as many as 20 additional schools to offer the courses next year, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“This is an opportunity to extend the reach of STEM education in our classrooms,” Ferebee said. “This is just the beginning for IPS.”

The grant won’t fund biomedical courses for high schools, like the one Prater teaches, but it will promote similar courses in engineering and computer science, in which students work together to solve a problems. Schools can receive up to $15,000 to help launch new programs and schools already offering the courses can receive up to $5,000 to support existing programs.

Accepting the grant is a big commitment for the district, because schools must pay annual participation fees ranging from $750 to $3,000 per program. But the funding is significant because training teachers and buying equipment are the biggest barriers to offering the program, said Ben Carter, director of career and technical education for the district. Once schools are up and running, sustaining the courses is relatively affordable, he said.

The district is already planning to add Project Lead The Way computer science courses at Arsenal, which currently offers only engineering and biomedical science, and Northwest High School next year, Carter said. Now it has the funding to offer courses at other high and elementary schools as well, he said.

Offering STEM education in earlier grades can help draw in students that might shy away from the fields, such as girls and minority children who have historically felt unwelcome in those careers, he said.

“By exposing students this early, they get more comfortable with it,” Carter said. “(It) will only strengthen the career pathways at the high school levels.”

Even if students don’t choose to pursue the fields that they study in Project Lead the Way, Prater believes the courses help students develop valuable skills. To solve the crime mystery in her class, for example, they must learn to research questions on their own.

In typical courses, students are given information in worksheets and textbooks that they regurgitate for tests, said Prater, who also teaches biology and chemistry.

“This class is not like that,” she said. “I don’t spoon feed them anything.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede