Oak Ridge Schools aim to be among America’s premier STEM districts

PHOTO: John Beard and Jim Dodson, Jefferson Middle School, Oak Ridge Schools

Established during World War II as a “secret city” to help develop the atomic bomb in the foothills of East Tennessee, Oak Ridge was kept off the U.S. map for almost a decade. More than 70 years later, educators at Oak Ridge Schools are working to put their historic town on the map as one of America’s premier STEM school districts.

As part of its STEM initiative to emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the school system is partnering with Discovery Education, a company that provides standards-based digital content and professional development for K-12 education.

On Tuesday, the district’s Jefferson Middle School served as host of an interactive social studies lesson led by Oak Ridge sixth-grade teacher Chris Layton and watched by educators nationwide through a live video stream on Discovery Education’s website.

During the hour-long class that focused on political processes, students never opened a textbook. Instead, they watched videos about the federal government on Discovery Education’s “Techbook” and participated in activities such as “political Jenga,” in which they constructed a tower based on the Bill of Rights and deconstructed it by removing rights they deemed least important. They also conducted conversations about the First Amendment using only questions.

“You have kids now, they can Google anything,” Layton explained to Chalkbeat as he prepared for Tuesday’s interactive lesson. “That used to be the carrot at the end of the stick as a teacher. You know, ‘I’m the teacher and I know the answer.'”

The push toward technology and projects has changed the way Layton thinks about teaching. He was trained to think of the teacher as the sole transmitter of knowledge, but now he puts the creation of knowledge more in his students’ hands. Increased use of technology means lessons are less facts-based and more investigation-based.

At least seven Tennessee schools identify themselves as STEM schools that emphasize the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. However, Oak Ridge is the state’s first school system to brand itself a STEM district.

Led by Superintendent Bruce Borchers, the district operates eight schools with more than 4,700 students and is working to incorporate digital technology into all classrooms, regardless of subject, from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade. Key to that initiative is a six-year partnership with Discovery Education, an outgrowth of the company that operates the Discovery and TLC cable television networks.

Discovery Education manager Emily Stigman and Oak Ridge social studies teacher Chris Layton lead a class streamed Tuesday to educators across the nation.
PHOTO: Discovery Education
Discovery Education manager Emily Stigman and Oak Ridge social studies teacher Chris Layton lead a class streamed Tuesday to educators across the nation.

The school system in Oak Ridge, which remains a federal hub for nuclear and energy research and technology, is becoming the company’s poster child to demonstrate how digital tools can transform education. During Tuesday’s live stream to educators, Layton’s lesson to students was interspersed with comments to educators from Emily Sigman, the manager of instructional implementation for Discovery Communications. She described how Discovery products might be used in classrooms.

The partnership with Discovery Education is part of an overall attitude shift to embody STEM ideals in the classroom, said Tracey Beckendorf-Edou, the district’s supervisor for teaching and learning. But while the school system is emphasizing the use of computers and other devices to teach all subjects, the emphasis on STEM education shouldn’t be all about technology, she said.

Beckendorf-Edou defines a STEM course as one that uses the four Cs — communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. The district promotes project-based learning, a method in which students learn by dedicating an extended period of time to investigate a complex question, just as much as it promotes the use of technology. To lead the charge, district has designated teachers such as Layton to serve as STEM coaches.

Earlier in the year, Layton incorporated STEM into his class by having students use Minecraft video games to recreate Mesopotamia, the ancient Greek area corresponding to modern-day Iraq, Kuwait and northeast Syria. He frequently directs his students to tackle historic policy problems, to see if they would solve them differently.

Project-based learning can be difficult initially, Layton acknowledges.

“For students having lived in the age of standardized tests and No Child Left Behind, trying to dig a little deeper is harder sometimes. Sometimes they’re just like, ‘tell me what the answer is!'” said Layton, noting that students quickly move from that mindset to a more inquisitive one.

“You’re becoming more of the facilitator, and putting them in the driver’s seat,” he said of his role as a STEM educator.

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.