California District Provides Innovative STEM Learning Opportunities for All Students

By Carol Wetzel, Discovery Education

Dr. Candace Singh, Superintendent of California’s Fallbrook Union Elementary School District (FUESD) is passionate about STEM and is dedicated to providing each of her students an engaging STEM learning experience. But Dr. Singh, known as Candy to her team, quickly recognized the district needed a strong plan to bring this type of learning experience to FUESD classrooms.

When Candy arrived at the district seven years ago, FUESD was struggling with low academic achievement, high suspension rates, waning employee morale, and limited parent involvement. In addition, the district was struggling with initiative fatigue. In an effort to overcome these challenges and bring her vision for STEM education to life, Candy worked closely with the district’s Governing Board and leadership team to “plan the work.” 

Here are the five key steps that drove the district’s vision for implementing their shared vision for STEM education:

DEFINING PRIORITIES --The first step Candy and her leadership team took was to clearly define their STEM priorities and commit to aligning all decisions, including budgetary decisions, to those priorities. FUESD’s plan focused on teaching the standards and creating benchmark and interim assessments to ensure the students were mastering the standards. In addition, to achieve the district’s vision for STEM learning experiences, FUESD’s plan called for the addition of robust curriculum resources, including digital resources, and professional learning opportunities that would empower teachers districtwide to create engaging STEM lessons.

With a fierce commitment to nurturing a culture of adult learning and collaboration, FUESD’s leadership team put in place the resources and support necessary to develop the content knowledge and instructional skills of the district’s educators. In the first two years, Candy directed her team to focus all professional learning on how to teach the new standards. They believed this work had to be job-embedded, so they placed a full time instructional coach in every school to support the work. In addition, the district also invested in curriculum resources to support the effort such as up-to-date English language arts and math materials and technology. Candy also brought in experts to professionally develop educators on how to teach the new math standards.

CREATE A STRONG ASSESSMENT SYSTEM -- The next step in this process was to utilize FUESD’s educators to build their own benchmark and interim assessment system. They did this to both get their finger on the pulse of whether the students were mastering the standards, but also to respond better when they weren’t. Candy and her team operated on the belief that if her teachers built the assessments, there would be significant buy-in and desire to utilize the data resulting from those assessments. They would get the “so-what, now-what” of the data and it worked, as evidenced by the highest gains in student achievement in the district’s history as well as achievement levels that now surpass county and state averages in a community where 72 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

BUILD IN TIME FOR REFLECTION AND COACHING -- Recognizing educators need time to analyze data, co-plan with their peers and engage in coaching, Candy also worked with her Governing Board and leadership team to provide her educators with one of the most underutilized but necessary resources - time to do the work! The district leadership aligned their budget to their goals by hiring certified physical education teachers to ensure FUESD students were receiving high quality physical education instruction while her core teachers were provided time, 100 minutes a week, to plan and reflect on the important work they were doing by and for their students. 

REALIGN HUMAN RESOURCES -- Once FUESD’s educators demonstrated mastery of standards based instruction, the district’s leadership felt they were now ready to take the next step towards their shared vision of STEM for all students. Candy and her leadership team asked all the school based coaches to decide whether they wanted to go back to the classroom or apply to be a school- based coach focused on STEM instruction. Like any solid sabbatical type model, this process infused new leadership into the coaching role from an already growing base of teacher leaders and returned highly qualified educators to the classroom, reenergized to teach even better than before.                                  

CREATE SUPPORT STRUCTURES -- In an effort to provide equitable access to STEM instruction, the new group of school based STEM coaches were now laser focused on building Innovation Labs in every school. In FUESD, the school based Innovation Labs are primarily spearheaded by the school based STEM Coach. To attempt to scale human capital and expertise in each building, the coach also works with a teacher leadership team called The Corps Four. This group of educators receives professional learning and job-embedded instructional support from Discovery Education. Together with the school based STEM coach and the DE team, the Corps Four plans for innovative instruction and then co-teaches with the classroom teacher to support them as they try out new instructional strategies.

Now, seven years into Candy’s tenure as Superintendent, STEM learning is infused into every facet of instruction at FUESD. More than 5,000 students in the Fallbrook community are now focused not on what they want to be when they grow up, but on what problems they want to solve. With innovative, interdisciplinary learning in every classroom and a deeply rooted strengths-based culture where students’ strengths are celebrated and capitalized on, students are engaged like never before and achievement continues to skyrocket. FUESD has gone from a district at the bottom of the pack to one that is a model for school district reform, innovative instruction, and a working environment where employees thrive.

For more information, please contact Stephanie Weaver at sweaver@fuesd.org or 760-731-5420.

Discovery Education Senior Director Dr. Carol Wetzel consults with district leaders across the nation to develop custom professional development implementations that truly meet the needs of individual school districts. Prior to her career at Discovery Education, Carol was a project manager and master professional developer for The Princeton Review and served as a Strategic Business Development Executive for Pearson's digital division.

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Girls holding banner with STEM photo