School Turnaround Success
The Connecticut Science Center partners with Hartford Public Schools to help transform an elementary school
The Annie Fisher Elementary School opened in the Blue Hills neighborhood of Hartford in 2005. After a series of experimental changes over the years – in which the school converted into a magnet school then “demagnetized” – in 2010 the school re-opened as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) magnet school. Months in advance of the opening, principal Melony Brady began ambitious preparations for launching what she envisioned as a path-breaking institution.
How it Happened
Brady enrolled herself and her staff in immersive professional development at the Connecticut Science Center to establish an innovative teaching approach and a vital culture for this new school. From the science teachers to the guidance counselor to the gym teacher, the entire faculty at the STEM School at Annie Fisher spent a full week of their summer vacation learning student-engaging methods in inquiry-based learning. For that initial summer, and for two subsequent summers, the STEM Annie Fisher teachers would be immersed in this new and exciting teaching methodology.
The “inquiry” method taught by the Science Center is based on the fact that people of all ages are naturally curious. When allowed the opportunity to make inquiries, to make observations, and to ask questions about the world around them they are more involved, more engaged, and more inspired. Inquiry more closely resembles the process of doing “real” science.
As a science, technology, engineering and math magnet school, STEM’s focus is on science. Unlike most schools where science is touched on a couple of times a week, a portion of each day at STEM is dedicated to learning science. Students also participate in overnight experiences at the Science Center, mobile science (outreach) experiences delivered by Science Center Staff Scientists to STEM classrooms, and a host of STEM-based after school programs at the school. Science is not a special event at the school, it is a daily norm.
Even given the school’s energetic focus on STEM, the results in the first year of the school’s partnership with the Science Center were impressive: in 2011, after just six months of the teachers’ applications of the Science Center’s inquiry methods in their classrooms, 5th and 8th grade Connecticut Mastery Test scores in science at STEM increased 20% compared to the 2010 test scores of the same students.
The principle of the inquiry-based method is well described by the adage, "tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand”, and inquiry works just as well for other subjects as it does for science. Math and reading CMT scores at STEM also reflected significant improvement in the same period.
Central to this success was the initial conviction of the district superintendent and school principal. Their leadership, and deep understanding of the potential of inquiry learning, opened the gates for the Science Center’s team to fully implement the intensive model they knew would have a significant impact on teaching and learning.
Science Center Education Director Holly Harrick, who has run the Professional Development program since 2005, was delighted when STEM expressed interest in the Science Center’s comprehensive professional development program. “We have this model and we know it works, but it relies on a school which is willing to go all-in and try a truly comprehensive approach,” she said.
Plans for Further Research
While test results are highly encouraging, the STEM magnet school and the Science Center are collaborating to gather and analyze additional data to evaluate the project for internal and external improvement efforts. “All of our work here at the Science Center is highly data driven, says the Science Center’s Research and Evaluation Manager, Heather Harkins. “We are really excited to have such an enthusiastic partner in the school system. It’s going to make some really ground-breaking work possible.”
Harkins is referring to a major evaluation study currently in development at the Science Center. In the last few years emerging research increasingly credits “informal” learning institutions like the Science Center with much of Americans’ science learning. National concern that American students are underperforming in STEM subjects compared to their global counterparts has meant that experts are increasingly looking to informal institutions for innovative responses and solutions. The Science Center–STEM at Annie Fisher partnership has the potential to serve as a national model for transforming education through collaboration between informal and formal educational institutions. The research study planned by Harkins and her colleagues will further pinpoint and quantify the specific elements of the program model that have contributed to the transformation at STEM.
The STEM at Annie Fisher story is already turning heads. At a recent “Innovations in Education” conference hosted by Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman and presented by the Connecticut Science Center and the Sea Research Foundation (which operates the Mystic Aquarium), Principal Brady shared her informal/formal science education experience with fellow educators, policy-makers, and community leaders. Indeed, new STEM schools in East Hartford and West Hartford have taken notice and are now working with the Science Center to enroll significant groups of their teachers and staff in the Science Center’s professional development program, while others plan district-wide training to accelerate progress among all their schools.
May 2012 - inside this issue
- Shaping the Next Generation of Scientists and Innovators
- School Turnaround Success
- One Parent's Perspective
- Time for Education Reform
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