Startup STEM School Learns Founders’ Lessons

by francine Hardaway on October 1, 2014

SySTEM Schools, the non-profit charter STEM school in downtown Phoenix whose board I am on, has been open for a little over a month, and it is behaving as all startups do; the co-founders are riding the roller coaster of ups and downs that always accompanies running a startup. My purpose seems to be to reassure everyone that startups are hard, but they work if you keep going, and I’ve learned more about elementary education than I every knew before.  It’s much harder to start a school than a software company, believe me.

For openers, the landlord and contractor are still negotiating with each other, so some parts of the tenant improvements in the building are not yet finished.  For example, although the classrooms are functional,  the sign on the building is not up. And the folding walls we specified so we could combine classes into one large collaborative space were late, so we can’t install them until fall break or later. In the meantime, we have temporary immovable walls.

These things would not be a problem if we weren’t trying to recruit students.

Over the summer, Angelica Cruz and Nicole Fernandez actually went door to door in the heat to talk to families and recruit 6th and 7th graders.  We started the school year with 97 students. However, after sorting out the transportation problems, the families who move, the kids who miss their old classmates, and the ones who want to attend school with a sibling, the number has fallen.  It’s a good thing we budgeted for 80 students and purposely overenrolled. We also need to seek students who really understand what they’re signing up for.

In addition, when the students took their benchmark reading tests, we discovered that reading levels of incoming students are anywhere from first to twelfth grades. This made me cry. A sixth grader still reading at first grade level is at a terrible disadvantage. It’s difficult to know whether to “blame” parents, teachers, administrators, or the testing itself, but the fact remains we’ve had to institute “emergency” reading therapy.

I was so depressed by the reading levels that I didn’t ask for the math scores. Instead, I plan to do the only thing I am equipped to do: I got on Amazon and bought ten of the top 25 books for children in 6th and 7th grade, and I am going to let the kids pick which one they want to read with me. I will then get on Amazon again and buy 25 copies of the book they choose and go down to the school as a volunteer while they read the book. I practiced this over the summer with my grandson:-) I know it works.

At first I thought I would ask all the students to read aloud to me. After all, that’s how I learned to read. However, Angelica told me there’s new research that says reading aloud makes students anxious.  I guess I must have spent a very anxious childhood, because I did it, along with everyone else in my class, all through elementary school.  At the end, we could all read. Among other things, it helped the immigrant kids in my school learn English. I’m going to play this by ear.

To really help these students and be the A school we want to be, we will need a boatload of volunteers who can do everything from chaperone field trips to talk about career opportunities in STEM, to teach leadership, collaboration, and team play. Six previous years of sitting at a desk in rows has not taught our students how to be collaborative, how to be inquisitive, and how to work as a team. The wonderful teachers at SySTEM are teaching those basic skills now, through activities such as recycling projects. We’re trying to awaken a spirit of inquiry.

But we will also need tutors, the kind that can see the glory in every child and bring it to the surface. I know this is possible, because I’ve been a foster parent and I know how far kids can come with the right attention. But it will take more than the small army of teachers and administrators at SySTEM to help.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the money. Make your tax credit contributions out to SySTEM Schools if you want to write a check rather than give your time. It’s $200 max if you are single, and $400 if you are married. We need everything from waste baskets to white board markers to books!




{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Steve Black February 26, 2015 at 4:02 pm

NO WAY!! THEY NEED TO READ OUT LOUD. NO ONE IS ALLOWED TO CRITICIZE….NONE, no matter how bad they are. Yes I know they all have different personality types. So Francine MAYBE the reason they are afraid to read out loud is…they DONT know their own personality types among themselves. FEAR. If know about themselves, then they find CONFIDENCE to MOVE forward…they NEED those positive motivational books that I used to read that gives them CONFIDENCE. Think and grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. That book is not so much about money BUT who can become to be. Get books that describe DISC. Find Robert Rohm, Author of the book “You Got Style!” He was one of the mentor that helped establish the very first AZ Diamondback Team (Imagine having a TEAM of all Ds like we have in Congress, no one would listen). He WOULD love to do presentation for group like yours….He might even do it for FREE He requires CLASS participation. He lives in Atlanta. He is not just for adults he is also kids too.

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