Principal of Delta High School paints picture of Pasco STEM schools

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMay 14, 2013 

Deidre Holmberg has sketched out a rough picture of what the Pasco School District's three new elementary schools will look like when they open.

There will be fewer textbooks and more mobile Internet devices, she told Pasco School Board members Tuesday. And less focus on grades and more emphasis on meeting standards. More student conversation and not as much direct instruction from teachers.

Essentially, the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, schools will play to an elementary student's inherent tendency toward curiosity, said Holmberg, principal of the STEM-focused Delta High School.

"They just have a natural ability to do this," she said. "Adults and even high school students struggle with it because they don't want to be wrong."

Holmberg gave some details about what lies ahead in the coming months in preparing for a STEM curriculum at the schools, with teacher recruitment starting as early as August.

Holmberg will be planning principal for the three schools starting July 1, after seeing Delta High's first senior class graduate.

Not all the details for the schools are worked out yet, including whether student enrollment will be based on serving nearby families or by choice. Holmberg and Superintendent Saundra Hill said there could unforeseen difficulties in trying a new approach to elementary education.

But they said it's important to start now, ahead of the first school's opening in fall 2014 so the district's students can succeed after graduation. The other two are expected to open in fall 2015.

"Those manufacturing jobs aren't coming back," Holmberg said. "We really have to prepare our children for a 21st century work force."

The district announced weeks ago that two new elementary schools and an early learning center, being built with a voter-approved $46.8 million bond, would be based around a STEM model. The board awarded the contract to build the first of the three schools, at Road 52 and Powerline Road, during its regular board meeting Tuesday night.

STEM places an emphasis on math and science in all subjects and strives for student collaboration and innovation, educators say.

A STEM curriculum will do a lot to make students more inquisitive, able to think for themselves and tackle challenges, Holmberg said. However, she said there will be challenges, as the approach requires a change in how schools operate, teachers work and communities support their students.

Most board members voiced interest in Holmberg's presentation, noting the interconnections between subjects and student-driven learning.

"It's an environment where students aren't afraid to take risks," said board member Ryan Brault.

Board member Bill Leggett raised concerns about where the arts will fit into a STEM school. He also questioned the permanency of STEM as an educational model and not just as a fad.

"Since 1960 we've had 20 different things that have been the research of the decade," he said. "I'm just concerned about attaching a name to it rather than just doing it."

Holmberg said the arts still will play an important role in education in STEM, although it would be taught differently than how it is now, such as learning about how instruments or paints are engineered.

"Artists are some of the best chemists, some of the best engineers," she said.

Hill stressed that STEM is not a fad and will be crucial for the future economy. She said one of the reasons Microsoft is backing immigration reform is to make it easier to fill high-level technology jobs Americans aren't trained for.

"We've got to do something different to prepare our kids for those jobs," she said.

Holmberg and Hill asked for the board's patience in implementing the new curriculum.

Hill said she and district administrators will continue reviewing how student enrollment will be determined. She suggested a combination of students enrolled by a small attendance area and some families choosing to send their students there.

"First we need to tell families what it's going to be," she said. "That's why we have to get this going."

Also Tuesday:

-- Fowler General Construction Inc., of Richland was awarded the contract for the first of three schools being built with the district's bond money.

Fowler, which submitted the lowest bid and has a history of doing projects for the district, will be paid about $17.3 million.

Three other companies submitted bids for the project and district administrators noted that the difference between the high and low bids was about 6 percent.

"Traditionally it is considered a very competitive bid result when the spread is anything less than 10 percent," district documents stated.

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