2018-08-01 / Shorts

New School Tools

New school start times and an elementary STEM curriculum are in store for SCASD students this year.
Chris Rosenblum | Photo by Nabil K. Mark

This fall, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” could be the State College Area School District’s theme song.

When students return to school on Aug. 27, the district will launch a historic change — new school start times. Elementary schools will begin earlier than before, at 8:10 a.m., but continue to dismiss at 3 p.m. The middle and high schools will shift their days to a later 8:40 a.m. start, which medical research indicates will be better aligned to adolescent sleep patterns and more conducive to sound health and classroom focus.

For elementary students, the benefits will be immediate. Extending the elementary day from among the shortest in the state will give teachers more time to cover core subjects thoroughly as well as work with students in need of assistance.

Additionally, the day allows for the introduction of another weekly “special” period. Joining music, art, library and physical education/health classes will be a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) program. Surveyed parents overwhelmingly favored STEM as the preferred choice.

“Our community spoke loud and clear that their desire for their children was STEM as a fifth special,” Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Vernon Bock says.

District teachers and administrators developed the curriculum, assisted by a local expert, Dr. Christine Cunningham, the founder and director of the acclaimed Engineering is Elementary program at the Museum of Science in Boston. Cunningham, a former Tufts University director of engineering education research, won a prestigious Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education award in 2017 for the cross-disciplinary EiE curriculum that introduces engineering concepts at the elementary level.
Deirdre Bauer, the SCASD director of elementary curriculum, says the district’s STEM curriculum draws from EiE units where students engage in robotics, coding and other hands-on activities “to support creativity, collaboration, communication and innovation.”

“SCASD is on the precipice of empowered experiences for our students that will serve them well as they transition to our middle and high schools and beyond,” Bauer says. “STEM is not just a collaboration around multiple disciplines; it is a way of thinking through the design process that transcends all fields. Our students are very fortunate to have these experiences as they consider what is next for them in their lives.”

The curriculum’s emphasis on studying real world problems in other countries and cultures particularly appeals to Bock.

“I think the empathy part is huge because it really shows that science is not just this clinical approach to solving issues,” he says. “It’s really considering the personal side of things, and how what I’m designing is going to impact this person and this culture. In this era of technology, our students can benefit from some real education about empathy and how it plays into the design process.”

STEM won’t be the only newcomer within nine elementary schools. A new math curriculum will balance conceptual understanding and procedural fluency skills. An updated art curriculum will provide opportunities to work in 2D, 3D, ceramics and media arts. And the health curriculum has been revised to focus on social and emotional learning and healthy choices in a developmentally appropriate manner.

It’s all cause for excitement across the district. Superintendent Bob O’Donnell sees the expanded elementary day and accompanying additions providing more chances for teachers to interact with their students — a critical component of successful schools.

“Although a lot will be changing, these relationships will remain as important as they ever were for us,” he says. “They certainly will fuel this major step forward for our school district.” •SCM

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