During a recent visit to an elementary school in Rockford, the kids were making catapults in the MakerSpace lab. The lab is one of the central hubs of the STEAM Academy at Haskell Elementary. It’s in a new modular building, housed next to their 60-year-old school.
On weeks they don’t get to work in the MakerSpace lab, students try their hand at Lego education.
More than half of Rockford Public Schools were rated either “lowest-performing” or “underperforming” this year. But Math and English/Language Arts scores were up.
This is Haskell’s third year as a STEAM Academy. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
Loree Leathers says it was scary to make the change. Leathers is the principal at Haskell. She's worked at the school for over two decades. A few years ago, school officials met with administrators from the district. Work by school staff wasn’t coming through in test scores. It was time for a change.
“We kind of had to be vulnerable and go out on a limb and be like, ‘Well, let's try it,’ she said. "So we didn't really know what we didn't know.”
After weeks of meetings and visiting other schools, Haskell chose STEAM as its specialty.
Cortney Schermerhorn is an instructional coach at Haskell. She assisted students and staff trying to get their footing in the new program.
“One of the things that drew us into STEAM," she said, "was that children were engaged and not just compliant.”
Haskell is a "public choice" school. There’s no aptitude test to get in, but parents have to want their kids to go there. And Leathers attested that the transition to STEAM was not an easy sell, especially at first.
“We went through a little bit of staff turnover," she said. "And I think it's because that first year was pretty stressful. It was all of us just trying to come up with ideas and best practices and try to like, ‘Hey, will you try this’ and teachers are like, ‘I can't add one more thing. I can't fit it all in. I can't do all of this.’
That’s when they were deemed “lowest-performing.” It means their scores were in the bottom 5% of the state. It's based on a mix of math and language arts tests, along with attendance numbers.
But, Leathers said, students slowly got more comfortable. The staff turnover slowed, they received a grant and hired a STEAM specialist. And, in the spirit of STEAM, Schermerhorn used data to figure out what to focus on.
“I think that's what's really moving the needle for us," she said, "is because we look at data and we know what the majority of our kids need, but we also know what each individual child needs.”
STEAM emphasizes cross-collaboration between subjects. It’s not uncommon to learn about what an instrument is made of and how that influences its sound during a normal music class. It’s also hands-on, earning the “e” for engineering in STEAM.
Leathers said it’s taught them how to fail -- properly.
“When you're in the unknown, that's when you truly learn," she said. "You're not going to learn something if you do it the first time and you get it correct. But when you fail, then you start to learn right and grow your brain.”
Now, Leathers believes, students and parents want to be at Haskell for its staff and STEAM program. And as a "choice" school, it has students from across Rockford. That means some students have to catch the bus around 6 in the morning.
Aside from test scores, attendance is a crucial piece of the report card grade. Rockford Public School’s overall rates of chronic absenteeism and truancy have increased over the last few years. By contrast, Haskell’s have fallen.
Leathers said, even with an upswing of interest in their school, staff don’t want a drastic shift in Haskell's demographics.
“We're not looking to pick a specialty to change who we service," she said. "We love who comes to us. We choose to stay here on the west side of Rockford for a reason.”
For now, Leathers is relieved the test scores are improving. But she’s seen scores ebb and flow in the past.
“I'm not done here yet," she said. "You know, people are like ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve been here forever,’ and I have been here for a really long time. But I'm not done yet.”
But for now, she hopes STEAM can be a catalyst for their continued success.