- Associated Press - Friday, January 13, 2017

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - At 1:45 on an October afternoon, Haley Floyd’s class at Benton STEM Elementary School was still immersed in a science lesson.

The second-grade classroom was studying the quick and slow ways the Earth changes. That day’s lesson: earthquakes, the Missourian (http://bit.ly/2jw6VmG ) reported.

The Smart-board in the classroom prompted the second-graders to make predictions on why earthquakes occur. To display the changing of tectonic plates, Floyd asked pairs of students to line up the black spines of their composition notebooks.

“Now push your notebooks together as hard as you can,” she instructed students.

Notebooks slammed together, creating paper mountains, mimicking the collision of tectonic plates.

Before students were dismissed, they gathered their things, cleaned up the classroom and grabbed a snack, either brought from home or from the class’ community animal cracker bucket.

On a carpet filled with multicolored squares, students listened to Floyd read “Rocks: hard, smooth, soft and rough.” When the students came to new words, such as “erosion,” Floyd said the word and asked the students to repeat it.

“Erosion,” they said in unison.

On the second floor of Benton STEM, Bianca Sanford’s third-grade classroom was littered with slivers of popsicle sticks and scraps of paper. The class was in the middle of a science unit about weather. Like Floyd’s classroom, Sanford’s classroom was covered in posters about the scientific method and being a scientist, including a poster declaring: “I can write like a scientist.”

Sanford’s 20 students were wiggly and eager to continue working on the engineering part of their trimester-long weather project.

The class was challenged with the task to build a roof to protect a “feather family,” using sandpaper, popsicle sticks and glue. Students worked in groups of three in the design project.

With supplies and wood houses in hand, groups spread out around the classroom. In the center of the classroom, Jayda Harris, Isabella Key and Amahdrion Bradshaw began adhering popsicle sticks to their wooden house.

“We’re making a flat roof with diagonal sticks so it’s stronger,” Jayda explained.

Nearby, Destiny Glasglow, Dylan Fletcher and Gracie Miller worked on their project through an assembly-line process.

“He marks, she cuts and I glue,” explained Destiny.

The three worked in near silence as Dylan measured the length of each popsicle stick, then handed it over to Gracie who cut the excess with school safety scissors before finally giving it to Destiny to assemble on their wooden home.

With excitement, a third group nearby chatted away during their building process.

“At my last school all I got was snacks!” said Cordell Crews. “Some kids don’t get to build at all.”

“Yeah,” chimed in Ayanna McCants, who transferred to Benton STEM last year. “Last year, all I got to build was a gingerbread house.”

Despite innovative, hands-on projects and student engagement, standardized test scores still show Benton students lagging behind other Columbia elementary schools in math, science and English. But the school’s STEM coordinator and teachers say test scores don’t measure the progress or success the school is experiencing since it made STEM - science, technology, engineering and math - a core part of the curriculum.

Officially Thomas Hart Benton STEM Elementary School, the school has been a part of Columbia’s history for over 100 years. Originally built in 1910, the building was rebuilt in 1927, containing only 12 rooms and a gym. Since then Benton has grown in size and population. Today, Benton has its largest enrollment to date, with 307 students enrolled in the school.

Located on Hinkson Avenue in north-central Columbia, the majority of students come from the surrounding neighborhood. Attendance for the school is based on a combination of lottery and zone-based admissions.

Last year, about 60 percent to 65 percent of the student population came from the surrounding attendance area. The remaining vacancies go to lottery students. Families that want to have their children attend can enter a lottery for admission; names are drawn at random. The remaining 35 percent to 40 percent of the student body, or about 122 students, attend via the lottery system.

Of the student population, 79 percent were eligible last year for free or reduced-cost lunch. Other Columbia elementary schools had, on average, 45 to 55 percent of the student body eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch. This data is used to signify the lower socio-economic status of the school’s location and student body.

Benton’s largest issue came in March 2011 when the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education placed the school under “School Improvement Level 3.” Benton students’ test scores hadn’t met state goals for three years in a row. The department required the school to take “corrective action.” Under the policy, district administrators have seven options, including options to “replace school staff relevant to failure,” ”appoint an outside expert to advise the school in its progress” or “institute and implement a new research-based and professionally developed curriculum.”

Former principal Troy Hogg wanted to not only improve student achievement, he wanted to unify teachers and make learning more meaningful to students. After looking at a model from other elementary schools and partnering with the MU College of Engineering, the school received a $10,000 grant from the Columbia Public Schools Foundation to purchase the Engineering is Elementary curriculum from the Museum of Science in Boston and began to change the philosophy and practice at Benton.

Later that year, Benton transformed to become a STEM school, which meant integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics throughout the curriculum.

“We’re doing it because we think it’s good for the kids, and we want to help them become more successful,” Hogg said in an earlier interview with the Missourian.

Benton STEM relies on practical integration of STEM curriculum and hands-on learning. Students also have a more focused view on career applications of content and skills. Their mission statement reads: “learning through discovery, students work together as a team.”

In the STEM model, teachers help students understand why they are learning the classroom curriculum and how it applies to the outside world. According to Benton, in STEM education, students have a more focused view on career applications of content and skills.

The goal is to make connections across all content areas.

“We teach the kids they’re just wearing different hats but studying the same thing through different points of view,” said Heather McCullar, the school’s STEM specialist.

Five years later, Benton’s STEM model has continued to expand. Now under principal Laura Lewis (formerly Laura Beeler), with leadership from McCullar, the school is hoping to continue to build on the successful changes that have come with the STEM curriculum.

At the elementary level, engineering is about teaching students the design process. At the end of each science unit, each grade has a design challenge that focuses on the content.

“We’re not where we want to be yet,” McCullar said.

Data paints a dismal picture on student performance at Benton. The school is one of the lowest performing in the Columbia school district, according to Missouri Assessment Program, or MAP, testing data.

On both the math and English portions of the MAP exam, Benton falls substantially short of the average proficiency and fails to meet the average of most elementary schools in Missouri, with only 12 percent of Benton students performing at or on grade level in math and only 27 percent of students performing at or above grade level in English.

This means the vast majority of Benton students are at least one grade level behind; however, according to teachers at Benton, students are often two or three years behind in achievement levels.

Students at Benton are also performing below average in science portions of standardized testing as well, despite being a school that focuses so heavily of the scientific process in learning.

In 2015, only 7.3 percent of fifth-graders at Benton scored proficient or advanced on the science section of the MAP test, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The school did see an increase in third- and fifth-grade English language arts, third- and fifth-grade math and science in 2016.

Low income is often attributed to low test scores for a variety of reasons, including access to quality school materials, test prep and lack of literacy experience at home.

“A lot of them haven’t been out of Columbia or the state of Missouri,” second-grade teacher Haley Floyd said. “If I asked them if they’ve seen a river up close, they haven’t.”

Back in her classroom, she described the role poverty plays in student achievement at Benton.

“Lack of background knowledge is the biggest thing,” Floyd said. “They don’t have the experiences,” adding that students also frequently come into her class with low reading and writing skills.

When asked if she thought that was different from other elementary schools in Columbia, “Yes, absolutely,” she answered.

Bianca Sanford, the third-grade teacher, noted the same deficits in her class. The students sometimes enter the program with no knowledge of major weather events. They haven’t heard about them, they haven’t seen news coverage, and they don’t understand the abstract concepts.

“They’ve never seen a hurricane before,” she said, “so how to make that relatable to them and having that background knowledge is a challenge.”

Despite test scores, teachers say Benton is still successful for students.

The biggest success for the school is the enthusiasm McCullar sees in the students and teachers, she said. Students are excited to come to school and learn because they know why they’re learning the information in their classes, teachers said.

“When we first started this program, we asked students, ‘What is a scientist?’” Floyd said. “They’d draw Albert Einstein, someone with crazy hair, someone with magic potions. Now, they know immediately: ‘I’m a scientist.’ They know a scientist is someone who asks questions, who works in a team. They push through obstacles. They know anyone can be a scientist.”

“Students say, ‘I’m learning this because I want to be a doctor or an engineer,’” McCullar said.

Bianca Sanford said she’s seen lots of improvements in behavior and knowledge with the hands-on design processes.

“It makes learning more relatable to them,” Sanford said.

“Their questioning is changing,” Floyd said. “They want to dig in and know how things work and how they’re made. They love to look at the engineering process and go home and apply what they learn.

“When we’re at recess, they always are questioning things. They see bugs they want to know about or see animals they want to build houses for. They come into class with questions about what they see at home. They love to watch ‘How It’s Made.’”

Floyd and Sanford also said they see literacy successes during the school year.

“I have approximately one-third of students on grade level in reading (reading at their grade level) when they enter my classroom,” Floyd said. “By the time the school year is over, two-thirds are on reading level.”

Administrators at Benton acknowledged that test scores are still a factor in making Benton successful.

“We still have to make sure they’re reading on grade level and working with that discrepancy,” McCullar said. “I think that’s a lot of why our test scores hurt because while they think mathematically and they might know how to use scientific concepts, if they can’t read on grade level, they’re still not going to perform where everyone else is performing.”

To improve how students are being taught, teachers attend monthly professional development workshops, especially revolving around STEM learning. Teachers attend summer sessions as well and receive additional STEM support from McCullar during the year as she observes classes, team-teaches and works alongside teachers.

The school is working to improve discussion among teachers to share best practices, student information and, simply, what is working and what isn’t.

The school is also continuing to work on writing content in the classrooms and is consistently building more opportunities for reading and writing, such as the school-wide addition of math and science notebooks this year.

Teachers are performing more informal assessments during the school year to gauge student achievement

“Test scores is just a snapshot in time,” Floyd said. “It is one moment that those students are stressed out, that they’re working on computers they may not know how to use or that they may not be able to use at home. Questions they might not be familiar with. We also see that students in our building, our biggest hurdle is still that literacy component. They come into this building so far behind, they may have not even seen a book before when they come to kindergarten.”

The hope is that STEM education will help the students at Benton become more successful as adults, allow them to think more critically and prepare them for successful careers. These goals are difficult to measure at the elementary level; however, McCullar hopes that students are being prepared for the future’s changing landscape.

It’s crucial to expose children to science and technology learning at a young age, she said.

“There’s a lot of research that says that’s the direction a lot of jobs are going, and we don’t have enough people prepared for those careers,” McCullar said. “Elementary school is where concepts should be introduced because by the time they get to middle and high school, if they haven’t had experience with math and science fields, they’re not even going to try.”

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Information from: Columbia Missourian, http://www.columbiamissourian.com

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