Hiring 17 STEM Specialists Within Madera Unified Has Allowed Students to Thrive Academically

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) have been predicted as far back as President Barack Obama to be the major disciplinary game changers for equity in the future.  Still, there is much to be done in our region and throughout California to give STEM access to all students.  Under-representation for Latin-X, Black, Indigenous Native Americans, and other groups is still a major concern according to the latest reports.  

Todd Lile, Superintendent of Madera Unified School District, began to critically assess the teaching of STEM in his P-6 workforce as early as 2019.  In his pre-pandemic assessment, he observed what has been a national trend for decades.  Elementary teachers have few formal science experiences or training, despite the expressed interest to learn. He began to explore international education practices and realized the success that students of other nations were experiencing and pondered ways to engage his teachers in similar ways.   

It is predicted that the vast majority of students currently in school will retire from jobs that don’t yet exist. The Digital Age is creating new jobs requiring new skills for which traditional school models cannot prepare them.  For students to be successful in their future vocations, they must learn to be nimble, thoughtful, and adaptive to a changing world. 

Superintendent Lile focused his research on the quality of project-based learning in the area of STEM education and also on allowing teachers more blocks of time during the day to meet with their fellow colleagues in order to plan and anticipate the needs of their classrooms. 

“Traditionally, teachers have been given thirty minutes of preparation time each day, fifteen in the morning and fifteen in the afternoon, which generally consisted of packing and cleaning up the classroom,” Superintendent Lile explained. “To successfully initiate change I have determined it is necessary to give educators two hundred and fifteen minutes of professional collaboration and planning time within the contract day.” 

Superintendent Lile

In order to execute his vision, Superintendent Lile needed more experts in the field of STEM education. To accomplish this, he partnered with the Kremen School of Education and Human Development to help brainstorm a solution.  Laura Toney, the College and Career Readiness Coordinator for Madera Unified, is the lifeblood of this initiative.  A veteran of MUSD an elementary science educator for over 25 years, Laura was the perfect choice for leading such an effort.  She convenes her STEM cohort weekly for support, extends resources, teaching ideas, and significant professional development to both support teachers and bolster student engagement.  

With the support of its local community and schools, MUSD hired 17 additional STEM specialists and placed them throughout the district. Superintendent Lile also offered supplemental support through increased salaries, supplies, equipment, and training. Combined, they have made a phenomenal impact on elementary science teaching throughout the Valley.  Their goal is being met as every single child of the MUSD is experiencing STEM education at every grade level every week.  The passion and enthusiasm with which these teachers approached the initiative is commendable. 

“I am extremely impressed with the dexterity of these educators. They are teaching six different grade levels in one day and in two separate languages. I’ve never met a teacher that would even think of taking on that role, much less fulfilling it and helping one another at the same time.”

Superintendent Lile

This new educational approach has benefited students all the way from TK through sixth grade, allowing each child to enjoy a rich stem experience. Implementing science in elementary education has always been treated as an afterthought but now it is being pushed to the forefront. STEM has been proven to help children develop a mental architecture that encourages them to be strategic problem-solvers long after they graduate.  

Inspired and motivated by these efforts, Kremen is working side-by-side with these STEM teachers to support them in their learning of such notions as the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards as they redesign lessons and create a learning community to support the advancement of STEM among elementary children.  It is an unprecedented investment and daunting task for each of these teachers as they often will teach every grade level of k-6 children in a single day–often adapting culturally responsive lessons on the fly with developmental appropriateness.  In addition, this complex cycle of teaching/reflecting/adapting often happens within a bilingual dual-immersion context. Their accomplishments are so unique that these teachers are presenting with Drs. Randy Yerrick and Fred Nelson at the California Science Educators Conference October 14th in Palm Springs.  The intent is to bring awareness to the challenges of teaching today’s children rising from a global pandemic, honor the cultural and linguistic diversity of the community, and simultaneously raise the professionalism of elementary content teachers more broadly.  

Superintendent Lile wants to take this initiative to the next level by helping secure more funding for Madera Unified and elevating the profession of teaching, (particularly in the area of elementary science). Their goal is to ensure the success of our future generation and to make sure each individual reaches their full potential. 

(Written by Audra Burwell, a Creative Writing Student Employed by The Kremen School of Education and Human Development)

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