Nine Low-Scoring Duval Schools To Get High-Tech Labs

Oct 27, 2014

Come next year, students in nine D and F middle schools will get state-of-art, hands-on learning thanks to a $1.9 million grant.

From left, students Omari Jones and Sean Kochanowski work on Z-mill in Twin Lakes Middle School Pitsco Lab
Credit Rhema Thompson / WJCT

The state school improvement grant will fund the development of new science labs in Eugene Butler Leadership Academy, Ft. Caroline Middle School, Highlands Middle School, Jean Ribault Middle School, Jefferson Davis Middle School, Matthew Gilbert Middle School, Northwestern Middle School and Southside Middle School.

All nine schools have received an F or D this year as well as low marks in science on statewide exams. Butler and Ribault Middle School have received two consecutive F’s over the last two years.

“It’s an opportunity for us to improve our programming and instruction of STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] at the middle school level,” Duval Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. 

The new hands-on classrooms, designed by STEM learning product company Pitsco, will be focused around themes of bio-engineering, computer animation and the like. They’ll be modeled after the Pitsco lab at Twin Lakes Middle School.

Vitti led members of media through a tour of Twin Lakes lab Monday morning.

“I think that the benefit of this will not only come through higher proficiency rates in eighth-grade science, but it will also come out when we talk about students having those soft skills that are applicable to college and the workforce,” he said.

Those soft skills include collaboration and problem-solving, Vitti said.

For 16 years, students at Twin Lakes have been learning those skills with project-based lessons involving lasers, robots and a variety of other electronics. Twin Lakes teacher Wanda Austin has been leading instruction in the lab since its inception.

“I believe once their knowledge has been tweaked to an area, they may go into something very similar to what we have in the room--maybe not, but at least it has exposed them to a lot the different technology that is out there,” she said.

Eighth-grader Omari Jones, who sat at a computer-operated mill, etching out a Porsche Monday, said before taking the class, engineering was nowhere in his future.

“It was nowhere towards my goal, but now, seeing how this does, I’m starting to get more into it,” he said.

Next year, students in the nine other middle schools will get the opportunity to take the class as an elective in addition to a core science class. The state grant will also go toward staffing each of the nine schools with a science coach to run the lab and train other teachers in science and technology. 

Vitti said the district is currently working with the Duval County teacher’s union to outline financial incentives for the coaches in a memorandum of understanding.

The labs are part of a larger scale effort by the district to reform its middle schools, which have generally lagged behind other grade levels in achievement and enrollment. With STEM-based themes, Vitti said the historically under-enrolled schools will have greater appeal among parents in the district, similar to the district’s high schools where every school has a STEM-based career academy.

“They’ll be able to promote these themes as part of their new identity in order to recruit students to these schools,” he said.

Vitti said the district plans to have several exhibits showcasing the STEM lab activities taking place at each of the schools during the School Choice Expo this January.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.