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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

June 17, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Back from the brink: Cleveland High says the secret is STEM

There may be no magic bullets in education. But if Cleveland High School is any indicator, there are some pretty powerful darts.

On Monday evening, Cleveland prepared to graduate 89 percent of its senior class. That’s a rate rivaling Roosevelt’s (90.3 percent last year) and surpassing Ballard’s (87.9 percent in 2013).

Nice, yes. But it looks a lot nicer considering that five years ago, only half of Cleveland students graduated on time, and educators considered closing the school because of dwindling enrollment.

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“We were not achieving academically, and we were not a popular place,” said Cleveland’s Academic Dean Catherine Brown, who characterized pass rates on state math tests back then as “abysmal.”

What changed?

In a word, STEM, the less-than-elegant acronym for science, technology, engineering and math education. Washington students have performed dismally in these areas for years (as have their peers across the country). But schools are discovering that when they overhaul their approach to STEM, they get a bunch of collateral benefits, too.

At Cleveland, for example, almost 40 percent of sophomores were not considered proficient in reading before 2010, when the school switched to a science orientation. But now every student chooses either an engineering or life-sciences concentration, and reading-test rates for sophomores have jumped to 84 percent passing.

Catherine Brown

Catherine Brown

“What we kept hearing from industry folks was ‘We don’t need students to leave high school knowing the latest tech skills — those will change each year. We need students who are collaborators, critical thinkers,'” Brown recalled. “They need to know how to communicate their ideas.”

Science taught via team projects — for example, using bicycle repair to demonstrate basic engineering — boosts exactly those skills, educators are finding both here and across the state. Last Sunday’s story about STEM at Toppenish High School in Yakima County outlines these effects in detail.

For Brown, who has spent the past decade at Cleveland, it was essential that her school continue to reach the same low-income population it always served. Much of the focus in STEM, she finds, is on white students.

“People around here were predicting that no one would want to come to a STEM program in the South End,” Brown said. “They were saying, ‘This won’t last. This won’t work.’ We need to see that schools that are primarily students of color can do this.”

Today at noon: Join Catherine Brown and other local educators for a live chat about how schools are rethinking STEM education. Go here for more information or to submit your questions in advance.

Comments | More in News | Topics: Catherine Brown, Cleveland High School, STEM

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