A Florida superintendent talks technology, learning, and full STEAM ahead.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
From sandy beaches to rolling pines, the Santa Rosa School District is situated in a bright, sunny, and aesthetically beautiful part of the country; the panhandle region of northwest Florida near the Gulf of Mexico. The area offers a healthy and busy quality of life. Over 170,000 residents call Santa Rosa County home; many are currently serving in the Armed Services, as both Navy and Air Force bases are part of the community. Santa Rosa School District serves over 27,000 students through 33 brick and mortar schools, two charter schools and their online blended academy. The district provides students “with a high-quality education and our students consistently lead the State of Florida in academic achievement,” beams Tim Wyrosdick, the district’s superintendent (pictured).
The integration of instructional technology, project-based learning, real world problems and connections to meaningful careers is essential.
Indeed, the area’s bright and sunny disposition clearly extends to its people, to the students in its school district, and the district’s administration. “The mission of our school district, ‘Educate students for success by providing a superior, relevant education’ — drives our daily instruction in the classroom as we strive to prepare our students for a bright and prosperous future,” says Tim. With this mission in mind, Santa Rosa School District is currently in year three of their Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics STEAM Innovate Program, “a five-year transformation of our entire K-12 school district working closely through our partnership with Discovery Education, a division of the globally recognized Discovery Communications,” he notes.
Why STEAM? What’s the school’s vision for STEAM?
Tim: Research consistently demonstrates that STEAM education dramatically increases student achievement, literally eliminating achievement gaps for at-risk students while challenging gifted and talented students and simultaneously creating an adaptable and skilled workforce for the future. Simply put, Santa Rosa STEAM Innovate is not only about transforming teaching and learning, STEAM Innovate is about economic development and the creation of a pipeline from our classrooms to gratifying and meaningful careers. The STEAM Innovate program in Santa Rosa County will transform every classroom in every school to an environment rich with critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. STEAM Innovate will provide students and teachers with authentic learning activities and projects that are relevant and meaningful to the community in which we all live and lead to a vibrant climate attractive to new business and expansion of current industry.
What’s an overview, and what are some of the details on—STEAM Innovate?
Tim: [The program] started in 2015 and the formal training and coaching associated with [it] will continue through 2022. In 2015, we started [it] in 20 of our schools. We began with four teachers from each of these 20 schools with these teachers receiving five professional development days and 10 on-site coaching days. These 80 teachers began a five-year journey with that first training occurring in September of 2015. It 2016, we added five more schools to the STEAM Innovate transformation. These five schools added 20 more teachers to our STEAM Innovate group. So, these 20 teachers began their five-year training loop in September of 2016. This group also received five professional development days and 10 on-site coaching days during their first year of training.
Now, in 2017, we have added another seven schools to the STEAM Innovate transformation. These seven high schools have added another 34 teachers to STEAM Innovate . Like the preceding groups, this group of high school teachers will receive five professional development days and 10 on-site coaching days during their first year of training. As this group begins their first year of training, the 2016 group is entering their second year of training and coaching while the 2015 group is beginning their third year of training and coaching. Along with the incredible amount of professional development and coaching that occurs during each group’s five-year cycle, there are many supporting events that occur around STEAM Innovate . Events such as family nights, STEAM celebrations, launch events, and school visits bring all aspects of STEAM Innovate alive within our district.
What is the goal of the initiative?
Tim: Santa Rosa School District provides students with a high-quality education and our students consistently lead the State of Florida in academic achievement. Indeed, the mission of our school district, Educate students for success by providing a superior, relevant education, drives our daily instruction in the classroom. Our goal with Innovate is to make these educational experiences even more relevant and more engaging. Through increased relevancy and engagement, we believe that we can continue to raise graduation rates, while at the same time create a well-trained, problem-solving student that meets the needs of high-tech. Our work within STEAM Innovate creates options for students as they walk across the graduation stage. What is our goal? Our goal is to provide the brightest future possible for every student within the Santa Rosa County School District.
What role does professional development and educational technology play?
Tim: Professional development is the cornerstone of this program. The teachers participate in 25 full day trainings over a five-year period, while receiving 50 on-site coaching during the same time frame. In addition to this, the administrators receive 20 PD days during the five years, while also receiving onsite coaching. The professional development activities are the key to transforming the classroom. As we strive to make our classrooms more engaging to today’s students, we have found that the professional development activities are critical and helping us understand the needs and desires of our students.
As we introduce new technologies into the classroom, it is important for us to understand that the technology needs to be seen as a tool for accomplishing tasks. The professional development activities help us to create “Talent with technology” among our students. Our approach to technology calls for us to be device agnostic as we strive to teach our students to operate on multiple platforms using multiple tech tools in various situations. Technology is important to what we are trying to accomplish, but providing a safe culture for curiosity and “failing forward” is the most important.
How has education changed in the district so far?
Tim: What has changed in our district is not only the classroom but also the attitude of many teachers. STEAM Innovate has energized veteran teachers, provided confidence to the new teachers, and created teacher leaders out of many. The level of student engagement has increased during this first three years of STEAM Innovate . In many ways, fun has returned to the classroom, along with exploration and curiosity.
In many ways, fun has returned to the classroom, along with exploration and curiosity.
What role are local stakeholders playing in this effort? Are you working with external partners and if so, what do they bring to the table?
Tim: STEAM Ambassadors, leaders from the business community, advise the school district in this important work by providing feedback and input regarding the type of skills that are essential for tomorrow’s workforce. A long-term strategic initiative, STEAM Ambassadors are partners in this symbiotic relationship in which Ambassadors visit our STEAM Learning Labs and Schools, as well as discuss the goals and future needs of their own businesses. To sustain and expand the program, STEAM Ambassadors are sharing the message of STEAM Innovate with other community leaders, leading to opportunities for additional resources and community-based projects.
VIDEO CREDIT: Momentus Films
During Year 3, our partners, include Ascend Performance Materials, the world’s largest manufacture of nylon; AppRiver, a global cybersecurity company; and the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research institute of the Florida University System. Researchers at IHMC pioneer technologies aimed at leveraging and extending human capabilities. Post-secondary partners include the University of West Florida (UWF), particularly the College of Science and Engineering, Pensacola State College, and Florida State University.
The district has cultivated a robust relationship with UWF. In fact, the district and University are collaborating on two National Science Foundation grants, with plans for not only teacher professional development and recruitment of students into STEM related teaching degrees at the secondary level, but internships for our secondary students. Finally, the district contracts with the Community Outreach Research Center (CORAL) at the University of West Florida for an annual external evaluation of the STEAM Innovate transformation. Year 1 and Year 2 reports are available on our web site.
Your district has become a destination for other school systems looking to implement STEAM capacity building programs—how did that happen?
Tim: Recognizing the importance of continuous improvement and the responsibility of providing students with a relevant and high quality education, Santa Rosa County School District has traveled and collaborated with other high performing school districts throughout the country. Over the years, we have adopted many practices and strategies that we have observed in other school districts. With the launch of our K-12 district-wide transformation, we partnered with Discovery Education, and the positive outcomes experienced by our students, teachers, and the community are undeniable! STEAM Innovate sells itself. The momentum of the transformation has been significant and beyond our expectations. As school district leaders have heard or read about STEAM Innovate, they have contacted us directly and also through our partner. In 2017, the school district hosted a National STEM Symposium with Discovery Education. Educational leaders from 18 states and five countries traveled to Santa Rosa County to learn directly from our teachers and students. An international STEAM Symposium is now in the planning stages for 2018.
What are the next steps for STEAM Innovate?
Tim: Over the next several years, we will continue to grow STEAM Innovate in Santa Rosa County. As part of the STEAM Innovate training that teachers are receiving, they are also being trained on how to lead other teachers into the STEAM Innovate space. The Innovate teachers within Santa Rosa County are leading PLC’s and workshops and presenting at conferences across the state and nation. Our next steps involve us growing STEAM Innovate into every classroom within the Santa Rosa County School District.
If you could point to one major thing you learned in implementing this program, what would it be?
Tim: When we began STEAM Innovate within the Santa Rosa County School District, we thought we were transforming teaching and learning in the classroom. What we have learned now in our third year of the STEAM Innovate initiative, is that we are not only transforming the classroom, but we have transformed the living room for many of our families. Parents are engaged like never before with their students on STEAM activities within their homes. Children are taking STEAM activities that they have participated in at school back to their neighborhoods and doing these activities with friends and family. The impact that these activities have on families and homes has been an unbelievable surprise for our school district.
The impact that these activities have on families and homes has been an unbelievable surprise for our school district.
What do you think is the future of STEAM in our country?
Tim: In the coming years of STEAM Innovate , we expect the excitement to continue. The 100+ teachers that are in the Innovate program will assist in scaling up Innovate through partnering with peer teachers, facilitating PLC’s, and leading professional development which will help non-Innovate teachers to incorporate exciting engaging relevant activities on a regular basis into their curriculum. With this pipeline of problem solvers that we will be graduating, we expect our activities to make a positive economic impact in our community. Santa Rosa County will quickly become an area in which people will want to live–not just because of the outstanding school system, but also because of the high-tech job opportunities that will exist. We expect STEAM Innovate to provide students with a very bright future right here in Santa Rosa County.
What do you think is the future of education?
Tim: It is critical, no matter where teaching and learning occur, the environment must be conducive to critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Regardless of each individual’s career path, education must cultivate teachers and life-long learners that adapt to whatever employers and the community require. In Santa Rosa County we are also cultivating learners that possess curiosity, confidence and commitment. The integration of instructional technology, project-based learning, real world problems and connections to meaningful careers is essential. There is no prescription or magic formula; however, the engagement with business, industry, and especially our students’ families and the community must be part of the learning experience.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]