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Bremerton's West Hills to produce to the next 'great thinkers'

West Hills Elementary, now a kindergarten through fifth grade school, will add sixth, seventh and eighth grades in the next three years and will emphasize science and engineering in its curriculum. - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
West Hills Elementary, now a kindergarten through fifth grade school, will add sixth, seventh and eighth grades in the next three years and will emphasize science and engineering in its curriculum.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

Ivy Greene was initially skeptical when she learned that West Hills Elementary, where her son Mason, 9, is a fourth grader, will become a STEM school next year, emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math.

“At first I kind of pictured this overhaul to the whole curriculum and was really wondering what it all entailed,” she said.

But when she learned more about the integrated, hands-on-style curriculum, she wishes her older son Asher — now a sixth grader at Mountain View Middle School — had the same education Mason will receive, believing a greater focus on math and science will help her son develop professional skills.

“Now I really think it’s an awesome idea,” Greene said. “There’s not enough emphasis on subjects that do them good later on in their careers.”

The school will begin phasing in the STEM program during the 2011-2012 school year, in an effort to turn West Hills into a kindergarten through eighth grade school. West Hills will implement STEM in fifth grade and add sixth grade next year, then add seventh grade the following year and eighth grade the next. The STEM program is a “blended” teaching model that poses real-world questions for students to solve, requiring them to use math, reading, science and logic to solve a problem. West Hills and Bremerton School District officials say the new curriculum is fitting for a community that includes the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Harrison Medical Center and a four-year engineering degree program at Olympic College. They hope an early foundation in engineering and science will funnel more students into these careers.

The idea to turn West Hills into a STEM school began when Superintendent Lester “Flip” Herndon encouraged the district to apply for a $2 million U.S. Department of Education grant in the spring. The district was turned down for the grant, but is still pressing ahead with the STEM program.

“It just seemed that it was a great match for the community of Bremerton,” Herndon said. “I think just project-based, hands-on learning and thinking about math and science in different ways will create excitement for students in those particular areas.”

Greene, whose son will begin learning the STEM curriculum next year, said the program will be perfect because of Mason’s natural curiosity and love of science and numbers. She said the program could have benefited her older son, who struggled with math, and she thought the curriculum could have been taught better.

“At the moment he was there, I kind of felt sometimes it was lightly glazed over because there was so much they were trying to fit in there,” she said.

Now Mason Green looks forward to learning more about science.

“That would be really fun,” he said, adding that he is already enjoying learning about the salmon life cycle in his fourth grade class. He hopes to learn about architecture in the future.

Chad Felix, whose daughter, Lydia Felix, is a fourth grader, said the problem-solving approach in STEM will help his daughter understand why she is learning certain math and science concepts.

“I believe that the education should be integrated into real-world solutions,” Chad Felix said. “I never really quite understood why I was doing math until I got into shop class.”

Shipyard scientists and engineers already come to West Hills classrooms for an hour a week, teaching students lessons from science kits and bringing equipment from work or home to enhance their lessons. Eight volunteers come to eight classrooms at West Hills, already fueling an interest in engineering.

“Kids are more excited about what they’re doing,” said Corinne Beach, a nuclear engineer at the shipyard who also heads the engineer volunteer program. “They’ve been able to put their hands on something and build something and learn through that mechanism instead of through a text book.”

Following that momentum, Herndon hopes an emphasis on science and engineering will help foster interest among less represented groups, such as females and minorities.

“Our hope is that it attracts historically underrepresented groups and that we keep that excitement within them,” he said. “Really it’s about figuring out a way that works for the largest amount of students that we can get.”

That will benefit the workforce at places like the shipyard, Beach said.

“Eventually we’re hoping to hire some of those students,” she said.

By extending West Hills to eighth grade, the district hopes to alleviate another problem: crowding at Mountain View Middle School. Whereas an ideal size for a middle school might be 650 students, Mountain View, in East Bremerton, has about 1,000 students, Herndon said.

Because there is no money or land available to build a West Bremerton middle school, West Hills would be another option for middle school-aged students.

Mason Green will be glad to spend his middle school years closer to home and stay in a familiar school.

“I’d rather come here so I don’t have to take the bus home,” he said. “It’s easier to get to and I know the school better.”

Chad Felix said extending the school to eighth grade may help solve behavioral problems that middle school-aged kids typically have, allowing them to serve as role models for younger kids instead of being isolated in a narrow age group.

“There are benefits to having kids in eighth grade integrated with younger kids,” he said. “I don’t really know why our education system created junior high in the first place.”

The phasing-in of the STEM program will initially pose no cost to the district because West Hills’ current fifth grade teachers, hired this year, already have previous careers in STEM-related areas - a strategic move by Principal Lisa Heaman. Two or three sixth grade teachers will be pulled from other schools.

The district is seeking grants that could help pay for professional development, training and equipment, but officials believe that having the STEM program in place will increase their chances of getting more money.

Heaman plans to host an informational meeting for West Hills parents in March.

“I think it’s just absolutely the most fabulous opportunity for our students,” she said. “We’re looking to produce great thinkers from our schools.”

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