Macdonough Elementary Teaching Only STEM Next Year

Starting next school year, an elementary school in Middletown, Conn. will exclusively teach science, technology, engineering and math-related material to prepare students for the high-tech new Beman Middle School.

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(TNS) — Next academic year, Macdonough Elementary School will be the only institution in the district to move to an entirely STEM-based system for students in kindergarten through the fifth grade.

The goal of the program, in the works for three years, is to invest in the city's youngest learners to prepare them for the rigors of the new state-of-the-art, technologically advanced Beman Middle School — and beyond.

"The hope is to [incorporate] STEM early on, and have them with us for five to six years," Principal Damian Reardon said. Children enrolled in Macdonough's STEM extension program for talented and gifted students will be given first priority. When the project was in development, Reardon said, "the thinking was this is really good instruction for them. Why can't we do this for everybody at Macdonough?"

Parents of students attending any of the city's eight elementary schools are eligible to apply for limited spots, the principal said.

STEM learning focuses on science, technology, engineering and math.

Everyone at the North End primary school, at 66 Spring St., will get exposure to interdisciplinary units, project-based learning and engineering design process, the principal said. Those skills will be very relevant as students advance to higher grades.

Instruction includes exploration of those skills, touched upon during a PowerPoint presentation by STEM coach Lauren Mikulak and Reardon at Tuesday night's Board of Education meeting.

"We also talked about digital citizenship and how we're teaching children to practice safe and ethical behaviors while exploring the digital world," she said Thursday.

A virtual open house on Zoom Thursday at 6:30 p.m. will provide details of the program. To attend, visit mpsct.zoom.us.

The school's youngest kids are given "developmentally appropriate" activities conducted in small groups, said Mikulak, who called STEM her "passion."

"The older grades will be working in more collaborative settings, but also doing some independent research. Each trimester has a real-world problem they are investigating, trying to find a solution," she said. Studies will discipline students for curricula at the middle and high schools.

"There's a lot of work being done with the opening of Beman Middle School around STEM instruction, as well as other pathways at the high school: aerospace, robotics and computer programming. Us being able to get students started with this way of learning at an early age really excites us," the principal said.

The facility will replace the current Woodrow Wilson Middle School on Wilderman's Way at the start of the 2021-22 year. Teaching will build upon primary school students' STEM knowledge and eventually prepare all students for the careers of the future, Reardon said.

The plan involves teaching students to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers and independent learners for their futures in higher education, and their chosen careers, he said. "We're educating kids right now for — we don't even know what jobs are going to be out there," Reardon said. "We can't prepare them for what we don't know, but we can prepare them to be thinkers."

One of the projects, dubbed "trash-to-treasure," had second-graders donning gloves and using garbage bags to pick up discarded items on school grounds, Mikulak said. It was intended to "create awareness and spark interest" in environmental issues.

Kids discussed policies that exist to remedy the problem and how effective they are, she said. Students chose to focus on marine trash and the Connecticut River. One parent, a professor and scientist who had traveled to India, took part in a Zoom session during which children asked questions.

Subsequent projects included the collection of discarded recyclable plastics, which were turned into artwork that "sent a message," Mikulak said. The creations were displayed at the Russell Library for the greater community.

Applications are now being taken for students throughout the public school system for about 44 spots at Macdonough. Yard signs are posted throughout town with a QR code for application information.

The opportunity is so appealing to parents, Superintendent Michael Conner said during the BOE meeting, that when he's jogging around his neighborhood, people stop him on the street asking how to enroll.

Six criteria must be met by those seeking entry, Reardon said. "Ideally, we'll have enough spaces for everybody who wants to come, but if we have to go to a lottery system, there's a rank system of who has priority."

TAG students, and their siblings, will be the first admitted, Reardon said. After that, kindergarten through second-graders and their older sisters/brothers will be selected. Going forward, spaces will be based on availability, with children who live in Macdonough's district first in line, he said.

"We're trying to make sure our TAG students have that opportunity, and then after that, we're trying to fill our K-2 spots. We really want kids to enter at a young age," Reardon said.

When Conner heard from residents during a community conversation in December 2019, he recalled collecting data from parents and others, he said during the school board meeting.

"They wanted to expand the TAG model that was there so that all students at Macdonough school would have an opportunity to be engaged in activities ... and go in depth with the engineering process, and go really deep into project-based learning — more exploratory, hands-on aspects," he said.

The schools chief said he was delighted to hear Reardon's response at the time: "'Let's run with it. Let's do it.'"

(c)2021 The Middletown Press, Conn. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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