Inside classrooms at Lincoln Heights Elementary School, students built bridges and tested math theories with ease.
It was a sign of how far this once-struggling school has come. Lincoln Heights is fighting back from years of poor academic performance and declining enrollment.
Five years after losing its magnet status, the school switched to a new education model in hopes of turning things around: STEM.
Lincoln Heights is now in its second year as a school that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. Teachers and administrators say they are already seeing a difference.
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Students are more engaged, and fewer families are opting to send their children elsewhere, they say.
But it will likely be a few years before test scores could show any gains, said Erica Prentice, the school’s STEM coordinator.
There is a nationwide push for a focus on math and science in schools. Some businesses, lawmakers and education advocates say the country needs more STEM schools because there is a projected shortage of prepared workers in the technology and science fields.
STEM employment is expected to grow about 17 percent between 2008 and 2018. Yet only about 45 percent of U.S. high school graduates are ready for college-level math work and 30 percent are ready for science work, according to the STEM Education Coalition.
Wake County has 26 STEM schools. A handful, including Lincoln Heights Elementary, are in western Wake County.
Inside Tracey Green’s first-grade classroom at Lincoln Heights, 7-year old Catie Previtte ripped off a piece of masking tape and wrapped it around a row of straws to make a walkway for a troll bridge.
“If we don’t put the straws, then the billy goats can’t get across,” Catie explained.
Students read the book “Three Billy Goats Gruff” and then built a bridge for the goats. The teacher didn’t provide a blueprint or tell them which materials to use.
Options included cups, straws, Popsicle sticks, index cards and a plastic sheet.
That’s one of the pillars of STEM: A teacher poses a question or problem, and it’s up to the students to figure out how to solve it and to test their theory.
“The teacher goes into the facilitator role,” Prentice said. “Kids get a chance to try it. They learn that failure is OK and that you have to keep trying if you don’t figure it out at first.”
Students are frequently required to work in groups.
“It mimics corporate America,” Prentice said. “Every student has a different role.”
No longer a magnet school
Lincoln Heights first decided to pursue STEM in about 2012. The Wake County school system was accepting applications and offering additional technology and funding for interested schools.
At the time, Lincoln Heights was struggling. The Wake County school board decided in 2007 to pull the school’s magnet status. It was one of four schools that lost magnet status as part of a district re-evaluation process.
Wake’s magnet program dates back to 1977 and was designed to increase diversity in schools and to provide equal educational opportunities. Some students who don’t live in a magnet school’s attendance zone can apply to attend.
The program was a boost to Lincoln Heights, which historically has a high number of poor students. About 59 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch.
Lincoln Heights was one of about 12 magnet schools that offered a gifted program started by the school system in 1982. Its enriched science program drew students from beyond the immediate neighborhood, said Assistant Principal Kathy Rackley, who has been at the school for 18 years.
After the magnet program was removed, some students transferred to other schools, and test scores dropped.
In 2006, 89.9 percent of Lincoln Heights students performed at or above grade level in reading. The figure was 74.1 percent in math. Both were above the statewide percentages.
That year, the school had 637 students.
In 2009, about 66 percent of students at the school performed at or above grade level in reading, while 75.9 percent were proficient in math. Test scores fell behind the state average in both subjects.
Every year since then, Lincoln Heights has not fared as well as the statewide average on tests. And it hasn’t done as well as fellow Title I schools in western Wake County – Dillard Drive Elementary near Cary and Fuquay-Varina Elementary.
Title I schools have a high number of poor students and receive additional federal funding to boost achievement.
At least 74 percent of students at Dillard Drive and Fuquay-Varina elementary schools scored at or above grade level in reading in 2011, while more than 86 percent were proficient in math.
At Lincoln Heights, about 62 percent of students were proficient in reading that year, and 74.5 percent were proficient in math.
By 2011, enrollment at Lincoln Heights fell to 472 students, although the school can support up to about 700.
The number of students dropped by more than 40 a year even as Fuquay-Varina’s population continued to grow.
Becoming a STEM school seemed a logical choice to make Lincoln Heights more attractive.
“We needed something to call our own,” Rackley said. “We needed something to draw families to Lincoln Heights. Slowly the word is spreading, as the public is gaining the knowledge that something different is happening. We do have families coming in saying, ‘We heard you are a STEM school.’ ”
For the first time since 2008, the school has started to gain students.
Since STEM was put in place, Lincoln Heights has gained 38 students, according to state data.
‘They can problem solve’
Students and teachers at Lincoln Heights say they like the STEM approach.
Jennifer Walters has been teaching for 18 years, and she thinks STEM is here to stay.
“This is something (students) can use and carry over with them,” Walters said. “They’re learning how to work with people and in teams. They can problem solve by themselves.
“Even if they get a job flipping burgers, they are going to be the employees who come up with a better way of doing it.”
Fifth-grade teacher Kristine Vondervor has embraced STEM, but she said the full benefits won’t be seen for a few years. It will be exciting once today’s kindergartners and first-graders have gone through a full STEM elementary curriculum, she said.
“What I see post-STEM is a higher level of engagement,” Vondervor said. “You see students analyze the question instead of giving a superficial or generic answer.”
Lessons can be tough, said 11-year-old Baylee Winkler. When students get the wrong answer, they must go back and figure out the correct solution.
But Baylee said she enjoys STEM.
“It’s definitely different,” she said. “It’s expanding what we’re doing and taking it a step further.”
Ten-year-old Biruk “Brooks” Seifu said his favorite assignment was to make a robotic arm out of Popsicle sticks, a spoon, a fork and a rubber band.
“It’s a lot easier for me,” he said of STEM. “It’s more fun.”