By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
This fall – probably around October – one big question should be settled for West Seattle’s trailblazing STEM elementary school: Its permanent home.
That’s what the Seattle School Board’s West Seattle rep, Marty McLaren, told us last night at the school’s current home, the former Louisa May Boren Junior High School that sprawls along the 5900 block of Delridge Way SW.
But the school’s staff and families aren’t waiting for that big decision to map out their future. That’s why McLaren was at the school last night, in fact – watching and listening as its community went public with the first draft of a five-year strategic plan, and invited the first round of feedback.
That feedback came in the form of sticky notes added to the huge yellow scroll of paper representing the envisioned timeline, posted along the biggest wall of Boren’s cavernous cafeteria. In our top photo, teacher Craig Parsley stands alongside the timeline during the presentation he led, laying out what were described as “the building blocks of a project-based-learning school.”
All the individual touchpoints along the timeline – and everything from the slide deck that started last night’s presentation – is published on the K-5 STEM PTA website; see it here.
But that doesn’t cover everything seen and heard by the more than 50 people in attendance last night – including hints of future hopes even bigger than a timeline might contain:
“Schools are built collaboratively,” began Parsley – promptly, in the spirit of collaboration, handing the microphone to Lily Pierson from the PTA.
“We got everything started,” she began, noting so much more remained to be done. “… We’re here because we want continued feedback from this community.”
Parsley offered gratitude to principal Dr. Shannon McKinney for giving staffers working on the plan “release time” to do it. He also listed other members of the Strategic Planning Committee, along with the committees they represented (he was from the Engineering Committee, while Pierson also serves on the Building Leadership Team):
Nancy Maher – PTA/ Parent Volunteer
Ro Gluck – 2/3 Teacher – Science Committee
Katie Bilanko – K/1 Teacher – Math Committee
Ashley Toney – Technology Committee
He noted the timeline’s focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics “doesn’t mean we’re not going to do anything else” at the school. STEM was stressed as a “platform to integrate Social Studies, Art, Physical Education, Music, Literacy (Reading and Writing), and Social Development” …
To cover those, the school’s strategic plan stresses it “two strategies to facilitate the delivery of a rigorous STEM program: Curriculum Integration and Cross-grade Curricular Articulation.”
Curriculum Integration was explained as “a teaching strategy whereby the boundaries between individual subject areas are taken down …” so that any individual lesson/project might span multiple subject areas. Curriculum Articulation, then, was explained as “the logical progression of learning objectives from grade level to grade level … The STEM curriculum we’ll be developing over the next five years will … also keep in mind what has to come before and what has to come after,” to avoid gaps.
One big disclaimer mentioned early on gave a nod to the uncertainty over the school’s permanent home, among other factors: Parsley said much would depend “on the availability of financial, material and facilities-related resources … We don’t know where we’re going to be.”
Other unsettled factors include the educational environments into which K-5 STEM “graduates” will be heading for middle school and high school, since there is no obvious pathway yet.
But for starters, the school has a full plate of its own, including how to best embrace each key subject area. Among those highlights:
“We want to create a STEM mindset,” said Parsley – that includes creating a customized science curriculum, beyond the “basic” one provided by the district through kits.
By the end of the five years covered in the plan – 2018 – they hope all of their students will be qualified for advanced (honors) science studies in higher grades.
Technology “will be embedded into all facets of student learning.” Not hard, said Parsley, because “It’s how we live now.” But they want to go beyond those basics – with explorations including robotics and “simple machine building and design.”
They’ve already adopted a curriculum called Engineering is Elementary and plan also to customize that “to integrate fundamental engineering experiences across all grade levels over five years.” He pointed out that “children love to build devices and solve problems if they have simple materials.”
By the third year of the plan, Parsley added, the school hopes to have its own tool library. (Perhaps no surprise considering that the nationally acclaimed West Seattle Tool Library is headquartered a little more than a mile away.)
They also have adopted Singapore Math – Parsley gained fame for fighting to get that acclaimed back-to-basics curriculum permitted and implemented at his previous school, Schmitz Park Elementary, with quantifiable achievements following. (Later in the meeting, it was mentioned that Alki and Lafayette Elementaries are using it too.) The timeline acknowledges that some adaptations might be necessary to ensure students are ready for state and district exams. Ultimately, it’s envisioned the curriculum will prepare “as many students as possible to enter Advanced Mathematics classes when they leave 5th grade.” That might mean some students jump right to 7th or even 8th grade math after leaving; Parsley said that opportunity will exist whether a K-5 STEM student is bound for Denny International Middle School or for Madison Middle School.
This involves a four-part program:
-Employ the district’s Readers and Writers Workshop strategies for narrative reading/writing skills
-Continue to use (while available) Reading Wonders for grammar and other nuts and bolts fundamentals of writing
-Design and implement a “customized expository reading and writing curriculum to support student work specific to the STEM domains”
-For struggling readers, use computer-based Read Naturally program or something similar
Regarding one other area of learning, art, it was noted that feedback had led to the integration of art “into the STEM domains” already.
Parsley stressed, “This is not cast in concrete .. this is the first go … we need a tremendous amount of community collaboration.” And it’ll still be a work in progress even once “finalized,” because technology will change, people will change, available funding will change, “so the goals that we’ve set are ‘modest to moderate goals’. … The bottom line is … what are your children going to look like in 10 years? Because the bottom line is THEIR bottom line.”
Realistically, he said, they’ll have a fixed level of district support, “and everything else, we’re going to have to chase” – seeking community partners, for example, maybe for something as simple as sponsoring/providing materials.
Proactivity also played into the question/answer session that followed – by parents as well as staff:
“Everything we have built so far is due to the intensity of the parent community. … If we want to take this up to middle school, to high school, the energy expended so far needs to be expanded on.” School leadership is doing what it can in that regard, Pierson said, mentioning that Dr. McKinney is talking to Madison to make sure it’s ready for students from this school to arrive: “The conversation has begun.” But beyond that – for example, whether there’s synergy yet with Cleveland High School and its STEM focus – the bridges have yet to be built. They’ll have to be, because as Parsley joked, “In three years, our students will be dangerous!”
How does “curriculum articulation” fit in with summers off? one parent asked via index card.
“Summers are summers, leave them alone,” Parsley began – while adding there are some advanced skills, especially math, that might be forgotten over the summer, so “it’s your option to ask your child’s teacher for materials to work with” – and, if feasible, you can get extra materials via singaporemath.com. But, again, “they do need to rest their minds.”
And, he suggested, get them working with “junk”; let them “develop their own play around learning … some of this has to be (fun).” He added, “Ingenuity isn’t just something you’re born with – it’s something you can develop in children,” if they’re given the chance.
One especially challenging question arose too: How is the school addressing social, economic, etc., injustice and what’s its approach to diversity and the world?
“As a staff we worked very hard on crafting a vision for our school that is inclusive and outreaching,” said Parsley, pointing out that the school is geographically located in a “very diverse neighborhood.” He re-read the mission statement calling for establishing a diverse student and staff population.
Just having a mission statement isn’t enough, he acknowledged, saying they’re going to conduct community outreach next year with multi-language advertising and flyers in community centers, “so non-native English speakers can see what the opportunities are here.”
Pierson said she appreciates the concern, as a woman of color, and observed that it says something about the representation in the STEM industries – which also have struggled with diversity.
(One of the sticky notes someone placed on the timeline shortly thereafter continued to press the point, urging the school’s staff to do everything it could to seek out more potential students of color.)
What’s next? One question wondered about another public forum; Parsley said an intensive testing period is ahead and there might not be time, but they’ll talk about feedback possibilities once everyone’s had a chance to go through the timeline/presentation online. (Again, you can read it on the PTA website, here.)
Side note: More than once during the evening, the idea of the K-5 school perhaps becoming K-8 was invoked. We asked principal Dr. McKinney about that afterward, and she told us emphatically that there is no potential plan being pursued – just a pie-in-the-sky concept people bring up then and again.
Meantime, the school is looking ahead to its second year – and according to a district report from last week, its waitlist already has more than 50 students (28 of them waitlisted for kindergarten).
And while, as we reported atop this story, decisionmaking for the school’s permanent location might not come till fall, McLaren indicated the public-outreach process was likely to start sooner – so watch for word on that, possibly in the weeks ahead.