Vol.#21: Wake NC State STEM Early College High School

This is the final of four schools from the discussion started in Volume #17 about the County’s various options for parents. 

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Our group of forty-four 2013  Kenan Fellows is pretty amazing, but even in this elite company I zeroed in on wanting to visit Carrie Horton immediately. Her school, Wake NC State University STEM Early College High School, as the lengthy title implies, is committed to instruction in STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Ms. Horton, like myself, is an English Language Arts teacher. Also like me (probably more so) she is tech-savvy and innovative.

Image Credit: WRAL @ http://wraltechwire.com/business/tech_wire/biotech/blog/7521546/?s=255
Image Credit: WRAL

So, I get the “T”. I’m totally on board with the “T”. But, what about those three other letters? Science, Engineering, and Math… in an English class? What does that look like? I simply had to know. Full disclosure: I wondered how she couldn’t possibly help but be a second class citizen as an ELA teacher in a STEM school.

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My first glance could have confirmed my suspicions. Her classes meet in the loading dock! The industrial space is complete with concrete floors and high ceilings resulting in unusual aesthetics and the accompanying challenging acoustics. However, she has used posters, curtains, and window decals to “cozy up” the atmosphere. Moreover, she has a document camera, data projector, and smart board in this space, which all of Wake County’s traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms do NOT boast. (She also has two white boards and my mid-90’s classroom only has blackboards, so I’m hardly judging.) Besides, a space is what you make of it.

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To be accepted, applicants must write an entrance essay and be on grade level as evidenced by passing all standardized testing. Ms. Horton said the acceptance rate is very high and some struggle because it’s an accelerated program. All courses are taught at honors level. Minority females are underrepresented in the STEM field, and the school would like to balance this. There are 11 girls 44 boys in the freshman class.

The school has twelve teachers, a principal, a counselor and dean of students, and a few other support personnel for a total of 18 staff members. Ms. Horton’s class, which would normally be titled “English I”, is a 90-minute block called “Humanities” which is co-taught in tandem with the 9th grade World Geography teacher. There are three such “Humanities” classes each with 20, 21, and 14 students. Each with the two core teachers. Even if they decide to trade days off (A/B) and plan at their desk for the day, they are hearing the other teach and are able to co-plan during the shared planning period for their shared 55 students.

So, needless to say, I went from skeptical to mesmerized. I still had one crucial question for her:

“How does ELA instruction look different in a STEM school?” 

For starters, there’s technology abounds. It is a one-to-one program where students  have a laptop that is theirs to use during the duration of their enrollment. All of the teachers have iPads, and they also have 4 classroom sets of iPads for student use. This is especially impressive when you consider they only have six classes going on at any one time during a class period. In math and science classrooms, students sit at horseshoe-shaped tables that have a flat screen on one end. Any student can plug his/her laptop into it to show the laptop’s screen to the group. I was absolutely salivating, but I didn’t have many questions of these possibilities per se as I understand how technology can be infused with ELA curriculum.

So…what about those other letters?

They’ve structured the school’s curriculum around the 15 Grand Challenges of Engineering (of which I am familiar with thanks to the Kenan Fellows Professional Development with Dr. Laura Bottomley. ) They divided these challenges among the grade levels depending on the curriculum. For example, freshman who take Earth Science look at “sustainability”. So, how does this relate to ELA? The students were reading The Lord of the Flies by William Golding and completing an accompanying “Survivor Project”. The students look at how to get access to clean water, food, shelter, etc., as the boys have to do in the novel. Students also look at the geography of the island where the boys were stranded. This has the obvious tie-in with the science as well. This project, which makes ELA thematic connections and has students using higher-level critical thinking, must result in a technology product.

“What about the Math?” Ms. Horton shrugs. It’s true that Math has the weakest connection of the four, she admits. Still, I’d come a long way from only connecting one to only failing to connect one. This way of approaching literature – connecting a 50 year old-classic to the real world in which students live now – is really revolutionary. I felt simple and narrow-minded to have ever wondered, “What does STEM have to do with English Language Arts?”

I crossed my last planned question, “Do you ever feel marginalized?” off my list. I had another, though:

“When are they adding a Wake NC State University STEM Early College MIDDLE School as a feeder school and where do I sign up?”

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What does this all mean? What have these schools taught me about school choice in Wake County? A few final thoughts in my next post.

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