District pursues $500K STEAM grant, with revisions

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

District pursues $500K STEAM grant, with revisionsFollowing an outpouring of community input into a grant that would enhance science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics education at the middle-school level, the Sierra Sands Unified School District will present a revised version of its grant application to the Department of Defense Education Activities Office next week in Washington, D.C.

For the last several months, district officials and consultants have been pursuing a $500,000 grant from DoDEA that would fund professional development and training for a collaborative approach to instructing STEM courses with an infusion of the arts (thus, STEAM) to round out exposure to both logical and creative approaches.

The original concept would have combined seventh- and eighth-grade populations from both middle schools onto the brand-new Murray campus, and opened up a sixth-grade STEAM academy at the adjacent Vieweg campus.

With logistical limitations — including the discovery of upward of $1 million in renovations required before Vieweg could be populated — and concerns relating to access to existing musical programs and transportation, the district revised the plan to create a “block” for project-based math and science (taught by two collaborating teachers) for sixth-graders. The goal is to include seventh- and eighth-grade students in the future.

During a meeting Monday night open to parents and other stakeholders, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Michelle Savko told attendees that while the grant was a great resource, the approach to introducing project-oriented instruction into the classroom was identified some time ago as a solution to an existing problem for educators in California.

“What’s interesting about Common Core standards is that, in the past, we really focused on process and procedures,” which addresses “what” convention or formula should be applied to a problem.

However, statewide test scores reveal that most students are not adequately grasping the “how” — or the application of a solution.

“Students in California have been at a disadvantage because our teaching and assessing have not been aligned to that 20th-century learning model,” said Savko.

In a continuing quest to improve the delivery of education within the district, “We had already come to the conclusion internally … we are weak in our application piece, and the ‘what’ does our students no good if our kids know the process, but not how to apply it.”

Rachel Kimbler, one of the parents in attendance, asked whether all sixth graders would be included in the proposed classroom blocks.

Laura Hickle, a former SSUSD teacher and administrator who has been contracted to write and manage the grant, said that will indeed be the intent of the district, and some of the things still being worked out are how teachers can provide support so that individual student needs are met in the process.

Kimbler also asked whether the district planned to move forward even if it did not win the grant after further discussions with DoDEA next week.

SSUSD Superintendent Ernie Bell said that project-based learning is the way education is heading, but the district would have to find the resources to fund professional development.

“The costs of training for this is enormous, and we have to maintain fiscal solvency.”

Hickle noted that the district’s historic success in sustaining cutting-edge programs make them a good candidate for approval. She also added that there are other avenues of funding for the district to explore.

“We tend to be ahead of the curve in our district,” said Savko, who attributed that both to the engagement of district professionals as well as the investment of the community.

“This will lead to many more opportunities.”

Pictured: Grant writer Laura Hickle (left) addresses a small group of parents and SSUSD officials at Monday’s public workshop. -- Photo by Christina Neipp

Story First Published: 2017-11-10