As the nation’s schools transition to distance and blended learning, long-standing gaps in educational equity and access have become a source of intense focus for K-12 school leaders. Research shows that access to quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics instruction, or STEM, creates opportunities for underserved students and can level the playing field career-wise. That’s been the case at the Portsmouth Public Schools in Virginia. Through a partnership with not-for-profit JASON Learning, the school division made an intentional pivot from a focus on testing to individual progress. Administrators say achievement is soaring. Here’s how they did it.
Portsmouth Public Schools, Virginia
When Portsmouth Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Elie Bracy joined the STEM cohort, a joint effort between AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and not-for-profit JASON Learning, his district was in the early stages of an impressive academic turnaround. Bracy believed a commitment to STEM education would accelerate that change — and he was eager to learn from other school leaders. (The cohort includes 40 total school districts.)
The division sought to develop a STEM program with six key components: curriculum, instruction, assessment, technology, availability of enrichment and extension experiences for students and staff and the presence of cross-institutional or community-based partnerships.
The logic was simple: better access to STEM coursework and training would create more opportunities for students within and around the Portsmouth community.
To provide students with the right opportunities, Bracy and Portsmouth needed a partner, someone to help ensure that students and teachers had equitable access to STEM-related content, be it courses, professional development or relationships with local and national experts.
“We are a unique small community. We are all committed to raising our children together. Part of this process involves a common commitment to equity and its power in shaping our students’ futures.”
-Dr. Elie Bracy, Superintendent
Portsmouth Public Schools (Va.)
Enter JASON Learning, a nationally recognized STEM curriculum built around real-world experiences, with content developed and guided by working scientists.
With a massive library of virtual STEM-related content and lessons, and roots in underwater exploration, JASON was designed to help students think scientifically about the world around them and engage with experts in the field, with content aligned to state academic standards. In addition to providing coursework for students in grades 3, 5 and 8, JASON uses resources from a National Science Foundation grant to provide professional development for teachers and real-world experiential learning opportunities for students.
A quick look at the district’s STEM course catalog reveals a range of creative ideas for students, including World of Waves, Race to Restore, Seas of Change, Infinite Potential, Terminal Velocity, Tectonic Fury, Monster Storms, Think Digital and more.
"As a result of our focus on STEM education, our students are constantly aware of how their education relates to the world beyond the classroom."
-Dr. Elie Bracy, Superintendent
Portsmouth Public Schools, Va.
How they did it
Finding success through the 5 “Es”
In its partnership with JASON, Portsmouth issued the not-for-profit content partner a challenge: The district would use the organization’s content, so long as it guaranteed to help students accomplish five critical educational goals.
Engage. Ensure all students understand the “compelling why” of what they are learning and how it connects to themselves and the world beyond the classroom.
Explore. Provide opportunities for students to engage in experience-based research, hypothesis testing, decision making, and problem solving.
Explain. Require students to frame hypotheses, claims, or thesis statements and use investigations to collect and analyze evidence to support them.
Elaborate. Encourage learners to explain, interpret, analyze, and create STEM-related issues, products, and performances using evidence generated through real-world explorations and investigations.
Evaluate. Reinforce students’ critical-thinking skills by providing a criteria to evaluate their own work processes and products as well as those of peers and professionals in the STEM field.