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Guest commentary / Education

Innovative reform is happening in our own backyard

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By Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe
Every child should have access to a quality education.
While the recent education documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” calls for silver-bullet solutions, the truth is that many schools already offer a variety of innovative ways to teach our kids.
These models for reform can be found in our own backyard. Washington schools are beating the odds and successfully preparing kids for the global future. As of this school year, there are 270 schools offering alternative forms of innovative curriculum. These schools reach 19,986 high school students and 2,225 middle and elementary students. There are 90 parent partnership programs helping 10,935 students who learn at home and 24 digital learning programs teaching 9,774 students. Here are a few leading examples.
Many of the fastest growing careers require expertise in the science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) fields. STEM schools seek to improve student achievement and career opportunity in fields critical to our state’s economic prosperity.
STEM programs are making great strides at schools like Brier Terrace Middle School. Teacher James Sullivan showed me how to look at these subjects in a non-traditional way through a program he began called SCI-MA-TECH, which blends science, math, technology and language arts (writing and presentation skills). SCI-MA-TECH takes STEM subjects beyond numbers and formulas through a creative, engaging and hands-on approach. Kids build working machines that they then present to the class. Students who previously wrote off these subjects suddenly find themselves interested in learning more.
The Technology Access Foundation (TAF) Academy in Federal Way is similar to Sullivan’s program but leverages additional funding through a unique public-private partnership. Its STEM curriculum provides a process in which students ask questions, investigate the world around them and come up with creative solutions. Whether students write about it, create a design for it, build a model of it or demonstrate it with a computer program or mathematical equation, their projects draw on the strength of core STEM subjects. In addition, STEM gives students access to real world internships at top companies. At the same time, TAF looks to build a critical mass of underrepresented minorities and women who can become leaders and innovators in STEM related fields.
Aviation High School in Des Moines is a college preparatory, aviation-themed high school that also strives to be a premier STEM school. Students, teachers, business leaders and other stakeholders spend time together in a joint intellectual effort that gives kids first-hand experience in future jobs.
Talbot Hill Elementary in Renton was recently recognized as an exemplary model of MicroSociety — a national nonprofit organization specializing in motivating students to succeed using authentic, real-world learning environments. In real time, students create and manage entire miniature societies, where more than 60 percent of students hold leadership or management positions and more than 200 students ran for office last year. These positions reflect real-world venues such as banks, where students use computerized banking systems to keep track of withdrawals and deposits, and courtrooms, where students are taught skills and shown processes by which their problems can be solved without violence.
Federal Way hosts Washington’s first online public school: Internet Academy (iA), which gives students across the state the opportunity to excel in an individualized, one-on-one environment. Many iA students attend standards-based schools or participate in other time-intensive school activities such as band or drama. Other students augment their home school curriculum with iA courses. Additionally, by enrolling in summer school, students can make up credits or get a jump on the coming year. Regardless of why they participate, students are offered a flexible and challenging learning experience that helps them succeed at their own pace.
Tacoma’s School of the Arts helps students make connections within academic disciplines, between the academics and the arts, between their lives now and their lives as they enter the larger global community.
Every student comes to school with different circumstances and abilities, and each deserves the same chance at success. Although these programs vary in strategy, their philosophies and curriculum all send the message that every student can succeed in college and a career.
All schools in Washington can learn from these models and, over time, apply similar concepts. But they can’t do it alone. Parent, community and business support is a critical component to successful implementation of alternative programs. Through collaboration, we can help each and every student graduate prepared to compete in today’s global workplace.

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell) chairs the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee.

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