Proposed STEM school model brings hope to Benton Elementary

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 | 1:14 p.m. CDT; updated 2:52 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 16, 2011

COLUMBIA — For the last four years, Columbia public school officials have scrambled to find solutions to Benton Elementary School's consistently low test scores.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, Benton Elementary has failed since 2006 to meet both state and national goals for adequate progress.

Benton faculty and staff, as well as district officials, are hopeful a new school model called STEM, slated to begin next fall, will turn the school around.  

STEM, the abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics , puts the emphasis on problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Benton Principal Troy Hogg described it as a "hands-on, practical approach." The model gives students both an understanding of math and science and ties learning to careers in those fields.

Although the program won't be implemented until next year, Hogg said curriculum planning at Benton is under way. 

"We'll phase things in over the next few years," he said. "We're pretty excited about it."

STEM schools have been gaining popularity on a national level since 2007 when  former President George W. Bush signed the America Competes Act.

Congress passed the legislation as a way to stimulate American competition on a global level. President Obama mentioned the STEM program in his 2011 State of the Union address, underscoring the importance of training more teachers in science, technology, engineering and math. 

Benton is adopting the STEM model chiefly to address stubborn problems with national test scores. The school, located northeast of downtown Columbia, serves a lower-income, highly mobile population. Among the 221 students enrolled last year, 90.8 percent were on the free and reduced-price lunch program.

Last year, Benton students failed to meet annual proficiency targets for both communication arts and mathematics. 

The MAP, or Missouri Assessment Program, is an annual exam that tests proficiency in communication arts and mathematics for Missouri students in grades 3-8.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, states set standards in these two areas, and the act calls for 100 percent of public school children to meet those standards by 2014.

The 2010 target for communication arts was 67.4 percent of students hitting the target. Of Benton's total student body, only 22.4 percent were proficient. 

The 2010 proficiency target for mathematics was 63.3 percent. Of Benton's total student body, 18.7 percent were proficient.

If a school fails to make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years, it is assigned to School Improvement Level 1, one of five levels assigned to Title I schools that fail to meet standards.

If a school continues to miss the bar, as Benton has done the past four years, the actions required of the school become more drastic.  

Currently, Benton is on School Improvement Level 3, which requires corrective measures. This level offers supplemental educational services and gives students a way to transfer to another public school within the district. It also requires a school to take more serious corrective steps.  

Next year, Benton will be at the fourth level, which demands a plan for restructuring, said Peter Stiepleman, assistant superintendent for elementary education.

At the Feb. 24 School Board work session, Stiepleman described how the STEM plan evolved.

"Benton staff approached us saying we want to embed science and math into our work," Stiepleman said. "We want to start early."

Although turning Benton into a STEM school would meet the restructuring requirement needed after next year, Hogg said Benton's low test scores are not the sole reason for transformation. 

"It's not why we're doing it," Hogg said. "We're doing it because we think it's good for kids, and we want to help them become more successful." 

Individual curriculum varies by school, but STEM schools share a focus on learning that inspires students and opens their eyes to career opportunities.

Cedar Park Elementary in Apple Valley, Minn., adopted the STEM program in the 2007-2008 school year. Children in grades K-5 at Cedar Park are encouraged to "explore, experiment, problem solve, and invent" in their everyday learning, according to the school's mission statement. Lessons are described as inquiry-based, interdisciplinary, technology-infused and culturally relevant.

Jamie Holtz, the school's curriculum specialist, said specialized learning areas play a role in enhancing the learning process.

At Cedar Park, students work in technology-rich classrooms. The school has a science lab, an engineering lab, outdoor learning areas, a tulip plot, bird feeding station, a food engineering lab and a mini-museum inquiry room, according to Cedar Park documentation.

In addition, the school partners with local parks, environmental groups, science and technology organizations, museums and universities in Minnesota to offer real-world connections for students.

At the Feb. 24 work session, School Board member Jonathan Sessions predicted that the STEM model would bring new opportunities to Benton. 

"The hope is that by instituting a new program that helps students who are least successful at science and math, we're giving them more opportunities and making them see real world, integrated science," Sessions said.

But board member Michelle Pruitt worried that a focus on math and science might devalue communication arts, which she called a major concern. 

"Many students can't read — so should science be the only thing focused on?" Pruitt asked the board.

In the meantime, Benton staff and faculty await the new STEM model with anticipation. 

Stiepleman said that in addition to science and math-based curriculum, proposed partnerships with nationally and internationally recognized experts in various fields of sciences will help make Benton a "world-class learning environment." 

"It's a very exciting time to be a Benton Bee," Stiepleman said.

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