Pasadena Unified’s Innovative STEM Programs Have Helped to Stabilize Declining Enrollment Rates

Published : Friday, May 12, 2017 | 5:39 AM

Pasadena Unified School District’s innovative “STEM” programs that catapult students into advanced coursework at early ages and attract families to enroll their kids public schools with ambitious curriculum may be the the driving force that is keeping the District enrollment rates stabilized during a time when statewide numbers are dwindling.

In recent years, a handful of PUSD schools have implemented rigorous Science Engineering Technology and Mathematics curriculum, or STEM, as well seen the transformation of some campuses into magnet schools which focus on a certain theme as a way to attract students to the schools both within the neighborhood and beyond — and the efforts seem to be paying off.

Students will showcase their impressive work that goes on inside the classroom at the District’s 4th Annual Innovation Exposition on Friday night, which will give the public an up close and personal look into student projects.

“We’re making public schools a player and choice to other comparable other educational options here in Pasadena,” said PUSD spokesperson Hilda Ramirez-Horvath. “Families who might not have considered public schools before are now considering public schools.”

School district across California that experienced declining enrollment in recent years is due to lower birth rates and other related reasons, according to Ramirez-Horvath.

“In Pasadena, what we’ve been able to do is stabilize that decline so that it’s flat, which is counter to what we’ve seen happen across the state. When a school district is actually stable, that means that we are doing something to bring families to our schools,” said Ramirez-Horvath.

Those things that PUSD now brings are said to be thanks to the STEM programs and the reinvention of campuses by making some magnet schools.

The PUSD has five elementary schools and one middle school that are designated STEM schools, which is an interdisciplinary approach to learning that focuses on the promotion of innovative teaching and learning, challenging content and high student engagement.

According to PUSD officials, research has found that a profound gap exists between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they will need for success in their communities and future work place.

“We know that the jobs that our students are going to have fifteen, twenty years down the line are not jobs that have even been created yet. Our STEM program is really working to build the skill that students need to apply to any career,” said PUSD STEM Curriculum Coach Jodi Marchesso.

Currently, designated STEM schools are Cleveland Elementary, Franklin Elementary Jackson STEM Dual Language Magnet Academy, Madison Elementary, Washington Elementary STEM Magnet and Washington STEAM Magnet Academy.

Volunteer scientists from Caltech and JPL frequent the classrooms and bring in technology and content to STEM teachers to keep the students engaged in relevant learning experiences that can be applied to everyday life, according to Marchesso.

“What we’re trying to do with our STEM program is we’re really trying to bring the world into the classroom and we’re trying to make natural events that are happening relevant to students and engaging them in science at an early age so that they want to continue into STEM careers,” explained Marchesso.

Recent projects young students have been working on include reverse engineering computers to learn about virtual reality processes, tinkering in a rigorous robotics bootcamp and conducting video weather reports in Spanish, to name a few.

In 2015, PUSD was awarded a grant to transform four of its schools into magnet schools, or schools that implement an innovative and attractive theme with a goal of attracted families and students to the schools both within the neighborhood and beyond.

“There are four thematic magnet schools in Pasadena Unified School District which currently receive funds from the United States Department of Education under the Magnet School Assistance Program. Our magnet schools illustrate the power of a thematic focus to engage families, students, teachers, and community through a curriculum enriched with real-world experiences,” said PUSD Magnet Coordinator Shannon Mumolo.

Those schools include Jackson STEM Dual Language Magnet Academy, Eliot Arts Magnet Academy, Washington Elementary STEM Magnet and Washington STEAM Magnet Academy.

“There’s been a huge increase in the positive perception of our schools and we are starting to see some students enroll from private schools,” said PUSD Magnet Coordinator Shannon Mumolo who mentioned that all of the magnet schools have seen an increase in school tours from parental interest.”

Schools have maintained and diversified their enrollment with an anticipation of enrollment increases in the upcoming school year, according to Mumolo.

“Over the last year we’ve had increased interest from families who attend our neighboring private schools. Parents are realizing that their children will have the same if not more unique educational opportunities here at our free, public magnet schools without paying tuition fees,” said Lori Touloumian, Principal Eliot Arts Magnet Academy.

Michaela Block is a parent of two young girls who began their education in private schools, but transferred them into PUSD’s STEM schools after realizing the innovative programs the district offers.

“It blows my mind all of the opportunities that are provided to these kids,” said Block. “They incorporate technology into their everyday learning.”

Block says her 13-year-old daughter asked to be transferred after hearing how the schools utilized impressive technology like 3-D printers, state of the art computer labs and more.

“You can definitely tell that PUSD is different from private schools. For me, it’s in a good way because I like the arts and all of the extra stuff that it has,” said 13 year-old Eliot Arts Magnet Academy student Meara Block.

The Block family is attracted to the hands on approach that public schools offer.

“There’s still more academic rigor in the private school learning, but what I appreciate about public schools is there’s a lot of standards. We are being watched and I like that accountability,” said Block.

“My hope is for the community is to embrace it more,” Block added. “The difference between private school and public, I believe, is the parents and I see a change with the parents as well and I hope that continues. The academics, a lot of the extra curricular and the items provided have more enriching and materials for the kids than a public school.”
Jackson Elementary is a great example of the positive transformation STEM had on the school. Just a couple years ago it was plagued with severe low enrollment and was on the chopping block to close down.

According to PUSD, the 2011-2012 school year saw a meager enrollment of approximately 300 students at Jackson. That number soared to 500 enrolled students for the 2015-2016 school year.

“I can definitely see a difference in the population of the students that are attending our STEM schools. I think it’s a highly desirable program that parents are interested in because we’re in Pasadena–we have Caltech, we have JPL, we have the Carnegie [Observatories]–we have all of these great scientific minds around us that I think they’re very much attracted to a program that they themselves are interested in,” said Marchesso.

Today, Jackson Elementary has a waiting list for students who want to enroll.

The public is invited to the 4th Annual PUSD STEM Showcase, “Innovation Exposition”, to witness first hand what students are working on inside the classroom by way of demonstrations and other activities.

The categories include invention, environmental innovation, science fiction, scientific inquiry, creativity with 3-D printing, and reverse engineering.

“Innovation Exposition” kicks off Friday at the Washington STEAM Magnet Academy gymnasium at 5:00 p.m.

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