Sylvan Union School District in northeast Modesto will launch a magnet school of sorts for 2017-18, teaching arts-enriched science and math lessons through hands-on projects.
Sylvan Elementary, the smallest of the district’s schools, will become the Sylvan STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) Academy. Neighborhood kids will be automatically enrolled, with remaining space in classrooms open by lottery (deadline Feb. 28) to students from other Sylvan schools.
A campus makeover is underway this school year. Construction crews are updating buildings and creating a large STEAM maker space, where buckets of usable parts and a wide-open floor plan can make room for everything from robot races to art studio projects.
But it is a new cadre of STEAM-dedicated teachers who are leading the charge to change, polishing techniques and piloting lessons this year for a smooth launch in August.
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“Those fields are on the rise in our world, in our country, and that’s where we want our kids going today,” fourth-grade teacher Andrea Fuentes told families gathered for an information night Wednesday.
The same “three R’s” – reading, writing, ’rithmatic – will be taught, speakers explained, but they get an update using the four C’s – communication, collaboration, critical-thinking and creativity.
How that looks in practice is a strategic mix of teacher instruction, like parents had, and real life-linked projects that are nothing like what parents had.
Instead of sitting in front of a program and being spoon-fed information, we want them to research. We want them to create with it. We want them to be problem-solvers.
Principal Teddé Vaupel
“We’re looking at an overall, driving question,” said second-grade teacher Katy Lind. “You guys might think of a mission. Oh, I did a project. We made a mission. We learned about missions – this is completely different.”
The questions, studied over multiple weeks, ask kids to explore something of interest happening around them such as “Where does rain go?” or “How can we get more school play equipment?”
The first step is research, where teachers tie in reading and writing lessons. “Language arts is not part of STEAM, but that doesn’t mean we’re cutting it out,” Lind stressed. History, science, math lessons all link to the big picture project in some way.
“We are teaching all of the Common Core State Standards,” said third-grade teacher Nicole Whorton, who came to Sylvan Elementary from another school this year. For English topics, she said, “they’re learning opinion writing and narrative writing and they’re learning how to read and they’re learning how to decode text.”
All the same standards get taught, Wharton said, “we just go about it in a little different way. I’m teaching math right now, area and perimeter. I brought in those construction guys from all of the renovation going on, and they’re showing the children blueprints and we’re talking about how area and perimeter can be used in real life. So much more of a real-world atmosphere than maybe I would have taught before.”
Science lessons, too, get a real-world twist, said second-grade teacher Mary Kelley, with her students working to invent a new tool, looking at engineering functions and, wrapping in art, how to make their tool look cool.
I’m teaching math right now, area and perimeter. I brought in those construction guys from all of the renovation going on, and they’re showing the children blueprints and we’re talking about how area and perimeter can be used in real life.
“Twenty-first century skills are about problem-solving, about critical-thinking, innovation, creativity. We don’t want to spoon-feed our kids,” said Principal Teddé Vaupel. “Instead of sitting in front of a program and being spoon-fed information, we want them to research. We want them to create with it. We want them to be problem-solvers.”
Teachers had to apply and interview to be a part of the STEAM project, which got its start as an idea of the district Innovation Committee. A year ago the school board approved the plan and its placement at Sylvan Elementary.
Sylvan Elementary enrollment peaked in 2001-02 at 708 students. It now serves 302, reflecting the opening of newer schools as well as the aging of its neighborhood. The campus rethink allows the district to ease crowding at other campuses without the disruption of redrawing school boundary lines.
The academy is meant to be a pilot, Superintendent Debra Hendricks said, with the next effort focused on adapting middle school electives to give STEAM options in upper grades. Sylvan students go to Modesto City high schools, where a range of science and art specialties are already in place. The Sylvan Elementary attendance area feeds into Beyer High, which offers robotics courses.
SYLVAN STEAM ACADEMY
FEB. 15: A final family information night will be 6:30-7:30 p.m. in the Sylvan Elementary multipurpose room, 2908 Coffee Road, Modesto.
FEB. 28: Applications, available at all Sylvan schools, must be into the Sylvan Elementary office by 4 p.m. Feb. 28. Students already in the Sylvan Elementary attendance area do not need to apply. For details, contact the school at 209-574-5600 or the Sylvan district at 209-574-5000.