Hill Field Elementary School got some welcome news recently when in late June the Department of Defense announced it had approved an application by the school for approximately $600,000 in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) funds in the form of a grant.
"We are very, very grateful to the Department of Defense for its insight in understanding that these children above all others need this opportunity," said Principal Paul Bryner, about the largest grant the school had ever received under his administration. "(Military families) do have to move. They do have family members that have to be separated for great lengths of time. They do have people who are sent in harm's way. All of these things create stresses in families that 'normal' families don't have. It's really for them," he said.
As part of the administration of the $592,000 grant to be used over the course of three years, funds will be used to organize a Nature Study Center located nearby on Hill Air Force Base and a weather station at the school. Professional development will be instituted to reinforce teaching methods, a summer school STEM academy implemented for grades 4-6 and a grant administrator hired.
Randy Rounds, a former Weber School District principal who wanted to get back into the classroom, has been hired to be the grant coordinator/coach to maintain the provenance necessary for a grant of this size.
"He is already loved and respected even though he only taught half-day for one year here (last year) and so he will continue with the good work," said Bryner.
The summer STEM academy will be instituted particularly for those students identified in grades 4-6 most likely to benefit from such an opportunity. One of the most effective ways to teach a subject, as much hands-on learning as can be implemented, will be crucial no matter where the learning is taking place, it's easy to see after any lengthy conversation with Bryner as he talks about the ideas organizers have been looking to use. Some of these range ways to incorporate science into the classroom, involve such things as mini telescopes to look at the stars, quartzite rocks to analyze or getting hands into the earth and involved in the planting of vegetables and flowers when it comes to the growing process.
Helping good teachers get even better
Professional teacher development is also to be a key component, Bryner said.
Grant funds cannot be used to hire more teachers, said Bryner, as only one quarter of the grant can be used toward any salaries and that will be the grant administrator, a coach and teacher rolled up into one.
As such, Rounds will help to coach others in continuing the Professional Learning Communities already in place at the school. In professional learning communities, teachers collaborate to devise a lesson plan, one teaches it to the group and the group evaluates what methods worked, what didn't work so well and come up with different ways to teach the topic. By extrapolation, what the teachers learn can then be applied to other subjects.
Another model will also be introduced in the August portion of the summer STEM academy, the Japanese Lesson Study Model. In that method, teachers pair up and do a very similar thing but do it in the classroom itself as one teacher presents the lesson and they both evaluate later
"We're focusing on grades four, five and six, although the entire faculty will feel some effects, and we hope all of our students do," Bryner said. The focus on those grades in particular will be due in part by the need to measure the effects of the grant.
How will progress be measured?
Student scores in some of these areas are being targeted as an enrichment focus of the grant.
"When you consider that we start over with the kids every year..." said Bryner, talking about how the high turnover rate the school experiences can be a challenge for learning, 'we don't have the opportunity to build from kindergarten on up through sixth and see the growth. Instead we take the kids wherever they are, and move them forward. And we do a good job of moving them forward," he said.
He said the grant will give the school the opportunity to bolster the school's average test scores in science and math and more importantly, help the kids see the importance of math and science in their lives.
"We as adults need to stop sending the message that math is difficult, science isn't interesting," said Bryner. "It's fun to see how the world works and why things are the way they are.
"We'd like to have kids be conversant with how our weather works and even have some reporting of the weather on a daily basis," Bryner said, suggesting that the announcements could include such things as what the humidity is and what the barometer's up to. At a school where they did that, Rounds used to be principal, and Bryner reports he said that even the kindergartners started saying such things as, "The barometer's doing some crazy things, I think the weather's going to change."
"When you've got a kindergartner who can do that, they get excited about (the idea) that they know those things," said Bryner.
Back to nature
Hill Air Force Base has an agreement to allow the use of a nature area nearby on base. The grant will also allow the addition of some interactive technology in a few classrooms to assist teachers in the classroom. Many of the classrooms have such tools but more are need. Such tools allow students to use them as well, such as smart blackboards with an easy to use stylus and Dell mini laptops that will be used in the classroom setting.
Bryner praises his staff of mixed seasoned teachers and a strong portion of enthusiastic less experienced staff.
"They have taken the challenge that has been given to them to make sure that these kids learn and they are so willing to take on all of the new projects from me, from the Legislature, from the parents, from the students and they're always willing to explore how can we make this the very best place that it can be," he said. "Their enthusiasm is what needs to make this work and there's a lot of it there."
He's not the only one proud of his school.
One of the few in the AFMC
"Us having this at Hill Field Elementary is absolutely marvelous because 95 or 96 percent of the kids that go to Hill Field Elementary are kids from Hill Air Force Base," said Carole Beasley, Hill AFB school liaison director in Education Outreach.
"We were just very fortunate that we were (among the) ones who got it in the AFMC -- both Egland and Hill received a grant," she said.
"There are pretty strict parameters. The reason the Department of Defense is doing this is they're hoping to attract and educate more kids into the STEM program, because the Air Force and the Department of Defense need more engineers, more mathematicians, more scientists," she said.