The scary, fun, uncertain need for change: Inspiration and collaboration drive the evolving nature of magnet schools

Salk’s updated themes and essential questions were created by a committee of teachers and approved/embraced by the entire staff 

If you’ve been living in the real world for any number of years you can probably rip off a bunch of different cliches about the need for change, embracing it, how it’s an opportunity for growth and so on and so forth. Change is scary and often those cliches are tossed at us by people who are about to impose it upon us as they see fit.

That’s not how it has to be, however, and Gandhi dished out the best advice when he told us to “Be the change you want to see in the world.” My hope is that your magnet program has the staff, leadership and structure to be able to make this a reality.

It’s not a simple process, but it’s certainly a necessary one and while it’s messy, with many heads and hands involved it can turn out quite elegantly in the end. The STEM magnet school where I teach at in Elk River, Minnesota (suburb northwest of Minneapolis) recently went through a significant change with our school themes because we felt it was time to do so and necessary to reinvigorate our program.

This change comes not at a low point in our overall school performance but a high point. Our school was recently recognized as a top performer in the state and we have seen powerful growth in statewide assessment measures. Our commitment to having a diverse student body continues and our school population of students of color is double the district average with ongoing recruitment efforts showing further growth.

The 140-characters-or-less story of our program is this: a decade ago our magnet program began as a school within a school. I joined the program in year two and we changed our themes. Eight years later the magnet expanded to encompass the entire school and our themes remain the same.

Okay, that was longer than 140 characters, but it’s a pretty good summary of the last decade. Those themes that served us well for four years of being a small program, and through the process of going all-school magnet, were due for a change because so many of the conditions they were created in changed.

Going to an all-school magnet program was the first big change. It was championed by the small number who were part of the original magnet. It was accepted by a good portion of the staff and tolerated by the rest. While there weren’t any who actively opposed the transition, it took a few years to get the vast majority in the “accepted” category.

The number of staff who championed the magnet program grew over time, and new hires into the magnet program didn’t know any different. Ongoing professional development of our STEM themes was extremely helpful in bringing everybody into the “accepted” category and creating champions, but it was glaringly obvious to those of us with the most experience that a Salk STEM version 2.0 was necessary. Making change can be tough when it seems that everything is going just fine, but one could argue that anytime you see the need for change that’s when you should make it. Don’t wait for things to get better or worse, be the change you wish to see.

Changing our themes
Our original themes, that existed for only the first year, were very specific to various interdisciplinary units. In the second year of our magnet program (my first year there), we began changing them to broader themes that encompassed all subject areas. Those STEM themes were as follows: Technology Applications; Scientific Communications; the Nature of Science and Engineering; and, STEM in Society.

Those themes were used very effectively with four years worth of students in the school-within-a-school program and because the subject area magnet teachers taught those students for two to three years of their middle school experience, we highlighted each theme for a quarter and integrated them into our instruction.

Those themes were easily interwoven into the entire school culture with the expansion to all-school magnet but those of us in the small program felt the dilution of the themes. This transition was led by our curriculum coordinator, Teri Ann Flatland who worked diligently with subject area professional learning communities (PLC’s) and helped them connect the themes to their existing curriculum maps. She used the existing magnet program model as a template, and allowed PLC’s to make adjustments as needed.

That drove us to help boost the concentration and understanding of the themes for students and staff alike and it was effective. Still the problem remained, and those of us in it felt it the most, should we engage in a process to change the themes? Flatland, myself, and our school principal Julie Athman, who opened the magnet program, had the same overarching concern: If we change the themes do we run the risk of losing the momentum gained with the existing ones? We wondered if staff merely embraced the existing themes at a superficial level or believed in them strongly enough to go on that soul-searching journey of creating new ones.

Change for the sake of change is never effective. Change for the sake of improvement and a better understanding of self is essential. Adapting to changing conditions is the key to survival, but getting others to embrace and live that process together is complicated.

Sending a group of staff members to the Magnet Schools of America conference in 2014 and again in 2016 turned out to ignite conversations that sparked in 2014 and ignited in 2016. When you have a staff who only know your program from within, either because they had it superimposed upon them or were hired into it, they likely don’t know what else is out there. “New teachers to our school don’t understand the bonus they get when being hired to a school with so many opportunities for students,” said Tasha Goudy, a Salk special education teacher who was hired a few years after the all-school transition. Goudy attended the MSA conference in Miami and said the school tours were the most powerful part of her experience, “I was able to bring back lots of ideas and realize that just because I teach a smaller population of students, I still have the capacity to give these students a quality STEM experience that connects with the larger mission of our school.”

The school tours, workshops, speakers, and opportunities for networking at MSA’s national conferences were crucial to electrifying the light bulb of new ideas and understanding of the power of magnet schools. Themes that looked good on paper, and were superficially understood in the classroom, became glaringly in need of adjustment by these folks new to the STEM magnet program. “There were so many great ideas that we garnered from the conference that are starting to show up and trickle into the classrooms and program as a whole,” said science teacher and theme team member Megan Heitkamp.

Those of us who knew it from the start were not in a position to ignite the change. We could facilitate it, we could harness it, we could work with it, but we alone could not drive it. Flatland created a “theme team” that existed for several years before our recent overhaul. That team needed time to analyze the existing themes and develop their own desire for change .”It took lots of staff input and seeing how students connected with the themes–that power of common language–to get more staff understanding the need for change.”

Something else was happening at the same time that posed a threat to the old themes. Teachers were innovating their instruction because that’s what good teachers do, but these innovations were not always tied to the magnet themes. When that happens, it’s time to make a change. “The conference helped me identify how our magnet program is unique and illustrated the point that we cannot allow the program to become stagnant even as our practice is improving, those must all be part of the same process for the sake of our students,” Heitkamp said.

Making the change
The theme team engaged in a brainstorming process in the spring of 2016 and then met over the summer to try and develop updated themes. One decision that was made was to ditch the quarterly thematic approach and allow the themes to exist all year. The power of quarterly themes is that emphasis can be placed on each one schoolwide, allowing students to see the theme through a multitude of lenses. The drawback of that is the theme doesn’t always fit best with each subject area during any given quarter.

Through all those discussions we developed updated themes to present to the staff, parents and select students for feedback at the beginning of the school year. “The journey we were on to update our program is an important one because the world is shifting around us,” Heitkamp said. “Our learners become more diverse and dynamic so our goals need modification to ensure that they meet student needs and push success at higher levels.”

By December the theme team had ditched the four quarterly themes for three annual themes: Technology Integration; Innovative Thinking and Problem Solving; and, Evidence Based Communication. The response was very favorable from staff, parents and students and what was especially appreciated has been the essential question of each theme:

  • Technology Integration: How can I appropriately utilize technology as a tool for learning and communicating?
  • Innovative Thinking and Problem Solving: How do I use innovative and creative thinking to solve problems as citizens of our community?
  • Evidence Based Communication: How do I apply the inquiry process to show evidence of learning?

“I believe that these latest themes and essential questions are better intertwined with the work that we are engaging our students in and the future curriculum pieces that we are envisioning. The essential questions are better geared to the cornerstone projects that already take place and better involve all the content areas to demonstrate that each teacher, no matter the subject area, is a magnet teacher,” Heitkamp said.

Evolving and celebrating
AScreen Shot 2017-03-21 at 11.40.07 PMs the students and staff of the Salk STEM magnet program stride into 2017 we do so with an updated mission. Posters of the new themes adorn classroom walls and the hallway. Discussions at several staff meetings and PLC’s have folded the updated themes into every classroom at ever-expanding levels.

Our theme team has created a theme alignment board in the staff workroom and teachers across all subject areas are sharing the work they complete that aligns to each of the themes. This listing of lessons and units will be used to further integrate the themes into all classrooms and further discover alignment across the disciplines.

Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 11.42.08 PM.pngIn a celebration of our updated themes and staff-wide re-commitment to an aligned focus, we recently donned our finest formal wear, rolled out the red carpet, and hosted the first of what we hope will become our annual “STEMmie Awards.” Check out  on Twitter if you dare!

Each of the content areas were recognized for their commitment to the themes and this has been a great official launch into the next phase of our ongoing growth. Creating a welcoming school for all of our students, engaging them in active learning that compels them to ask questions and dig into the possible solutions, and honoring the processes of learning, is what this is all about and student feedback is very positive.

As we enter our second decade of existence as a magnet school, we are inspired to continue collaborating together for our students and being the drivers of the evolving nature of our STEM magnet school program.