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Santa Clara Education Desk: Dec. 11, 2013

Wilcox STEM Day Highlights New Physics and Computer Science Classes

Technology startups are key job creators throughout the United States, according to recent research by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which focuses on fostering entrepreneurship. That’s one important reason for Wilcox High School’s recent AP STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Day on Nov. 20, aimed at getting students to understand the importance of solid STEM education.

The event featured a visit to new AP STEM classes offered at Wilcox, plus an information session with Carlos Vera, from Google’s Next Generation Data Systems, where students could learn about the career opportunities in STEM.

“Wilcox High School is excited to participate in AP STEM Day and recognize Google’s generous support of our new Advanced Placement classes in science and engineering,” said Wilcox teacher Craig Young in a recent news release. “We are committed to providing rigorous STEM courses to all our students, and especially to minority, female, and low-income students who have historically been underrepresented in these fields.”

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Wilcox High School is one of 335 schools across the U.S. participating in College Board’s (www.collegeboard.org) AP STEM Access program, which will offer 36,000 students opportunities for college-level STEM course work in newly created classes. With the additional support of Google’s $5 million Global Impact Award to DonorsChoose.org, Wilcox is starting new AP courses in physics and computer science.

Last year more than 300,000 students who had the potential to succeed in an AP course didn’t take one, estimates College Board. One of the program’s specific goals is encouraging underrepresented minority and female students with demonstrated aptitude to explore these areas of study and related careers.

Only three out of 10 black or Hispanic students and two out of 10 Native American students who had the potential to succeed in an AP math class took one, the organization says. This is compared with six out of 10 Asian students and four out of 10 white students. And girls take fewer AP STEM classes than boys.

“I was delighted to meet the students at Wilcox High School and discuss how their studies in AP STEM can lead to some of the most exciting careers available today,” said Vera. “Engaging students in STEM disciplines so they can succeed in today’s highly competitive global marketplace is what the AP STEM Access program is all about.”

Federal Grant Trains 32 SCUSD Teachers in Early Reading Intervention

As sexy as STEM education is at the moment, the fact is that if you can’t read you can’t learn anything else. While there’s no shortage of remedial reading programs, Santa Clara Unified has had the opportunity to become an area expert in the Reading Recovery program; a short-term one-on-one methodology that focuses on preventing reading problems early, rather than trying to fix them later.

Teacher training for the program, offered at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, has been funded for the last three years by a $225,000 federal i3 (Investing in Innovation Fund) grant. Working with a teacher leader, and closely watching how that leader works with students in a special classroom with a two-way mirror, is central to program training.

“In addition, we were awarded one of 15 grants nationally to train a Reading Recovery teacher leader,” says SCUSD Reading Intervention Specialist Lisa Blanc, “and establish SCUSD as a Reading Recovery training site. And we were awarded funding to build a ‘Behind the Glass’ room at Bowers where the classes are held.”

Reading Recovery has a long history in SCUSD, going back as far as 1993, says Blanc. “Thanks to the i3 funding, we have been able to train 32 Reading Recovery teachers over the past three years,” reports Blanc.

“Perhaps the most admirable part of the return of Reading Recovery is the fact that each of these 32 teachers are so passionate about early literacy and reading intervention for struggling readers that they have sought out the opportunity …completely outside of their regular teaching day.

In short, these teachers have essentially taken on a half-time volunteer job on top of their full-time jobs in the district. That unpaid work, Blanc says, adds 15 to 20 hours a week on top of regular teaching responsibilities.

Reading Recovery was developed in New Zealand in the 1970s. Using a set of diagnostics and classroom teacher recommendations, the program identifies at-risk children in the first grade. Students work individually with a specially trained teacher, daily, for half an hour for anywhere from 12 to 20 weeks – until the student’s reading performance level reaches the average class level.

Reading Recovery is based on the “whole language” approach to literacy, so lessons are different for every child, depending on what each already knows and needs to learn next. Lessons focus on understanding meaning in reading, conveying meaning in writing, and learning how to absorb detail – for example, letter sounds – without losing focus on whole words and meaning.

The Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE, www.cpre.org) recently published a report of Reading Recovery results in Ohio schools, finding significant improvements. Total reading test scores for students in the program increased 18 points, with reading comprehension scores growing 20 points.

Like anything else, Reading Recovery has its critics – something that’s not surprising given the “whole language vs. phonics” pedagogy war that’s been raging for the last 30 years.

One of those critics is the National Right to Read Foundation (www.nrrf.org), which considers Reading Readiness a band-aid for something that was flawed in the first place, whole language methodology.

This opposition is unsurprising, because the NRRF is headed by two key opponents of the FTC’s 1996 false advertising charges against Hooked on Phonics – a “systematic” and “intensive” (i.e. drill-based) curriculum of phonics instruction that enjoyed a huge following in the 1990s. (In general, the NRRF objects to reading pedagogy since Horace Mann’s and John Dewey’s educational ideas displaced Noah Webster’s 1806 “blue-backed speller.”)

NRRF’s critique, in turn, was panned by educational publisher Heinemann – which publishes materials for use in Reading Recovery – in its “Facts on Research on Teaching Phonics,” saying that NRRF’s research “says nothing about how children read and comprehend normal texts.”

Reading Recovery was evaluated in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, and the findings were published on the agency’s “What Works” website (ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc). While finding that the vast majority of studies to date didn’t meet the IES’ evidence standards, the agency reported a 46 percent reading fluency improvement for students in the program.

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