A new approach to learning at the freshman level was unveiled recently, in a series of community presentations by Snoqualmie Valley School District staff.
The presentations, last Tuesday and Thursday with about 180 parents and at an October 18 work session, focused on the curriculum offerings at the district’s new Freshman Learning Center (FLC), scheduled to open for the 2013-14 school year.
Those curriculum offerings, said Mount Si High School Principal John Belcher, are focused on preparing students for their post-high-school careers. They will feature a pairing of science and language arts classes, so the teachers in these subjects will have the same students in their classes, Belcher said, they will add a new requirement called STEM, and they will make PE, formerly a required freshman course, an elective.
STEM is an education acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. It will be a core requirement for next year’s freshmen, Belcher told the board at a work session; parents who want to exempt their children “because they’re already strong in math or science,” didn’t understand the concept.
“STEM is not a class, it’s an approach,” Belcher said.
In next year’s FLC, STEM is the shorthand name for a new required class, but it’s also a problem-based learning influence that Belcher and fellow presenters Vernie Newell, principal at Snoqualmie Middle School, and high school robotics teacher Kyle Warren want to see spread throughout the FLC.
Less about science and math than it is about developing the learning skills all students need — analysis, assessment, collaboration, academic discourse, Belcher said, STEM is “all about college readiness. We know what colleges are telling (schools in general), what industries are telling us… our graduates do not possess the critical thinking, the reasoning, the problem-solving skills....”
The STEM class will be divided into 45-day segments on biotechnology and health sciences, computer science and IT, environmental sciences and sustainability, and engineering and architectural design. On a transcript, the class would count as a lab science class, Belcher said. Asked about his degree of confidence in that, he said it was “pretty strong.”
Some parents and at least one school board member, Carolyn Simpson, have been skeptical about the value of having such a class on a student transcript, however. Simpson expressed growing doubts that a college would consider such an exploratory class to be academically rigorous, and at the Nov. 8 school board meeting, she moved both to create a committee of board members, staff and parents to “vet” their concerns about the STEM class, and to postpone by one or two years the opening of the FLC. Her motion failed for lack of a second.
Belcher defended the class concept, saying “for all 180 days of school, students will find something to interest them.”
He added that Mount Si’s approach to STEM would look different from most of the current STEM-based programs, which tend to focus on a single area.
Project Lead the Way, for example, offers three products, Gateway to Technology for middle schools, and at the high-school level, Biomedical Science and Pathway to Engineering, both of which feature increasingly specialized classes.
Belcher said Mount Si Assistant Principal Cindy Wilson is currently negotiating with the company on the possibility of adapting their programs, to create a custom approach for Mount Si freshmen.
The arrangement would be new for PLTW, which company representative Quinn Gilbert said hasn’t created a customized program for an individual school in the past.
Instead, PLTW provides course materials, generally at no cost, to school districts that contract with the company. The courses can be offered at any school in the district, once the teachers take the required training. The company serves 4,782 schools nationwide, including Issaquah, Liberty, Lake Washington and Sammamish High Schools, and Tyee and Tillicum Middle Schools.
Snoqualmie Valley has no contract with PLTW, and might not enter one, if they can’t reach an agreement, said Assistant Superintendent Don McConkey.
“We think our approach is stronger than what we’ve seen other schools are doing. It’s customized to our region, and what our region’s jobs are,” Belcher said.
Another big change in next year’s freshman offerings is making PE an elective course. Freshmen will each have two elective choices, Belcher said, and they can skip PE entirely in their freshman year. However, they will have to earn 1.5 PE credits in their high school careers, a state requirement, before they can graduate.
Board member Geoff Doy was hesitant about not requiring PE, saying some students at that age simply need the activity during the day. Belcher emphasized that PE was not being eliminated, but was not being required.
“We’ve made PE an elective. Those sorts of families that feel that it’s important should pick PE as their elective option,” he said.
Doy also noted at the work session that Mount Si students currently have more than 60 elective classes to choose from, but he counted only 29 electives for freshman in next year’s FLC.
Belcher agreed that they would be offering less for the students, but added that there was still some flexibility in the final offerings. His goal had been to pre-register eighth graders this fall, but changed that when he saw that parents were beginning to get “a little panicky.”
Current efforts are centered on determining which staff members will serve the FLC, Belcher said. He hoped to have a firm list by the end of December, so that in January, they could begin “intensive” planning and training sessions with those staff members. Staff will have input on the final program offerings that eighth graders will register for in early March.
These staff members will select the final curriculum offerings from a list of options developed by an advisory committee of district staff and administrators. Ninth grade registration is planned for early March.