Bracken Academy Runs on STEAM Power

There’s a school in Nevada with an unusual name that is helping students to achieve promising results: Bracken STEAM Academy of Las Vegas.

The STEAM in Bracken’s name comes from its focus on science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, with the largest emphasis on engineering. The school also is placing a renewed focus on holding all students to rigorous, college- and career-ready standards.

Michelle Wheatfill, who teaches Bracken fifth-graders and has taught at the school for nine years, sees a difference in the classroom after teaching with heightened standards. “The students are learning exponentially,” Wheatfill said. “And because of the technology we have, they take charge of a lot of their learning. We’re there just to help guide them, instead of teaching every lesson with direct instruction.”


Teacher Michelle Wheatfill introduces a lesson to her 5th grade class. (Photo Credit: Clark County School District)

Victoria Zblewski, a fourth-grade teacher with seven years of experience at Bracken, agrees. “As a result of the higher standards, my students are able to explain why we’re doing something,” she said. “We actually have kids write out their thinking, not just write their answer.”

But what do the students think of how they’re being taught? Wynn, a third-grader, said that she likes the opportunities that are presented. “Bracken is so good because the teachers don’t stop you at certain levels. They keep pushing you so you can keep going higher and get better.”

“Bracken is such a good school because the teachers push us to our level,” said Aden, a fifth-grade student. “I like when we get to do accelerated levels.”

Principal Kathleen Decker, who has led Bracken for 13 years, also sees the differences. “I’m in the classrooms all the time,” Decker said. “I do see teachers using a lot more hands-on, a lot more project-based learning, and a lot more differentiated and individualized instruction than in the past.”

Bracken’s commitment to higher standards is supported with two grants from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The Bracken STEAM Academy’s collaboration with Las Vegas’ Smith Center for the Performing Arts is funded by the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education Program which, in turn, is supported by ED’s Arts in Education National Program.

In addition, ED provides the school with $27,000 per year in a Title I grant, which helps keep the computer labs open before and after school, and funds a parent volunteer coordinator.

Principal Decker emphasized that teaching the children is the top priority and, one way or another, supporting the kids will always get done. At the same time, Decker said, “The federal money we receive at Bracken helps us engage everybody. The dollars do make a difference.”

Joe Barison is the director of communications and outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.


Silicon Valley Weighs in on Adult Education Challenges

If you want to engage the high-tech industry to help improve job readiness for the nation’s 36 million low-skilled adults, a good place to start is Silicon Valley.

That is just what the Wadhwani Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education did. In January, Wadhwani staff, led by Chief Executive Officer Ajay Kela, were joined by ED’s Brenda Dann-Messier, assistant secretary for career, technical, and adult education; Johan Uvin, deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives; and Cheryl Keenan, director of the Adult Education and Literacy Division, for a listening-and-working session at Cañada College, in Redwood City, Calif.


Assistant Secretary Brenda Dann-Messier (seated, second from left) and Wadhwani Foundation’s Gayatri Agnew (standing, left) are joined by colleagues viewing new learning technology presented by Leslie Redd of LearnBIG (seated, third from left) at the adult reskilling session in Redwood City, Calif. (ED photo credit: Joe Barison)

This engagement event, “Time for the U.S. to Reskill,” brought more than 50 San Francisco Bay Area adult-education stakeholders together, with representation from local workforce, community, and advocacy organizations. The welcome by Wadhwani’s Kela, ED’s Dann-Messier, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Regional Administrator Robert Garcia described the magnitude of the low-skilled-adults challenge. The speakers emphasized how a worker’s low skill level directly affects life beyond employment, starting with a person’s health.

The format was “to put people in a room who may not typically come into a room together and convene unlikely stakeholders,” said Gayatri Agnew, Wadhwani’s program director for Race to a Job – USA.

The immediate goal, Dann-Messier said, “is a national plan to improve the foundation skills of the 36 million low-skilled adults in this country.” She explained her imperative to travel to California and to be in the room. “I need to hear what the folks are saying regionally, what the challenges are, what the solutions are, and it’s very important for me to hear all of that first-hand, and not have it filtered.”

Agnew moderated a panel comprised of adult-education stakeholders, followed by general discussion. The participants then dispersed to a half-dozen small rooms for a working lunch and creating the start of solutions. Later, during a break, participants talked about their reasons for attending the session and assessed how things were going.

“We’re trying to serve an issue here of equality, access issues, in both the field of Latinos moving up in the corporate world and in social equity,” said Luis Chavez, chairman of the board, Latino Institute on Corporate Inclusion, and a senior director for the Career Ladders Project.

Silicon Valley employers gave their perspectives as well. Kris Stadelman, director of the Nova Workforce Investment Board, said, “In education – I hear this from employers – your product is supposed to be a trained, ready, educated, prepared workforce.” In this light, she said, the day’s program was on the right track. “It was really good to start out with evidence, with the data, to really quantify what it is we’re talking about. I think the questions were all the right ones.”

This engagement session was one of five ED nationwide sessions, with others held in Philadelphia, Chicago, rural Cleveland, Miss., and the greater Boston, Mass. area. While each session is unique, Dann-Messier sees the Silicon Valley session as different from the rest. “If you’ve got 36 million folks – and federally we’re only serving two million – traditional means aren’t going to work,” she said. “We have to really make sure that we utilize technology-enabled solutions.”

Joe Barison is the director of communications and outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.

Mission Promise Neighborhood Partners and Families Launch $30 Million Grant

When you talk about a Promise Neighborhoods Grant in San Francisco, the operative word is “neighborhood.” On a recent Saturday morning, dozens of Mission District families took part as the Mission Promise Neighborhood launched its $30 million ED grant.

John O’Connell High School was the site as the Mission Economic Development Agency and over 30 of its partners hosted a three-hour festival that included a family-resource fair, entertainment, food and giveaways to let the whole community know about a grant to help families of students at César Chavez Elementary School, Bryant Elementary School, Everett Middle School, and John O’Connell High School.

Minority Leader Pelosi

U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi participated in the Mission Promise Neighborhood’s $30 million grant launch at John O’Connell High School, in San Francisco. (ED photo credit: Joe Barison)

While other federal education grants focus on academics, the Promise Neighborhoods Grant helps children and families focus on academics while also providing wrap around support to minimize the impact of a difficult economic environment on learning in the classroom.

“Our program is based on the strong connections between academic achievement and a family’s economic status,” said Victor Corral, interim director of Mission Promise Neighborhood at the Mission Economic Development Agency.

The agenda included remarks by U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who addressed the importance of the Mission Promise Neighborhood grant. “It’s a model for our country, and it works because it’s giving local leaders more resources,” Pelosi said.

The White House was represented by Marco Davis, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. “The Promise Neighborhoods Program is an outstanding example of engaging all aspects of a community,” Davis said.

“This is really our first opportunity to announce [the grant award] to the community at large,” said Jillian Spindle, director of development for the Mission Economic Development Agency. “That’s why we’re at the high school. We wanted a lot of families in attendance.”

The day’s theme of the local community, local leaders and local agencies working together to make education better may have been best summed up by Interim Director Corral, who said, “We’re doing this not for the community, but with the community.”

Joe Barison is the director of communications and outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.

Nevada School District Makes Its Budget An Open Book

Clark County School District (CCSD) in Nevada believes you can’t judge a book by its cover – at least not if that cover is on the district’s budget book. And so, in the interest of transparency, accountability and communication, that is one cover that has been entirely removed.

On January 14, CCSD Superintendent of Schools Dwight D. Jones pulled back the curtain to unveil a new look at the inner workings of the district’s budget. Jones directed that his district’s website post the kind of budget information that others might reserve for closed-door meetings.

But now, with the CCSD website’s new “Open Book” section, the Greater Las Vegas community has a virtual seat at the superintendent’s conference table.

Screen shot of the Clark County website

Jones explained why the change was needed. “There wasn’t a clear, consistent way to show where we were spending our resources and what kind of a return we were getting on our investment,” he said. “I wanted to build a better trust with the community and kind of put my money where my mouth was in being more transparent.”

The difference is visually dramatic. The everyday lay person can now see exactly the categories where the district spends its money, then click on that category to find a further breakdown of cost. “You can see how every dollar is allocated, and we provide simple comparisons to other districts our size,” Jones said.

But it is not only the district that sees the improvement in communication. “The new, Open Book presentation [of the school-district budget] is a lot more intuitive, so you can get to data quickly and easily,” said Cass Palmer, President and CEO, United Way of Southern Nevada. “I think transparency in any form of government is imperative. It focuses on ‘Here are the dollars, here are the numbers, you know what you’re spending.’”

The dollars are readily accessible on the district’s website. And the numbers add up to tell a story. “I think when people see how this district ranks in administrator expenditures per student, people will be surprised. They’ll see that 89 percent of our resources go to educators’ salaries and benefits, and that will be a surprise,” Jones said. “We want to break down myths.”

Naturally, good communication is a two-way street, which Jones recognizes. “We also have a place [at the Open Book portal] where you can give your feedback. The schools ultimately belong to the public. And the public should have a way to be part of the dialogue about how we’re doing our funding.”

You can explore the Clark County School District’s innovative website portal by going to:

Joe Barison is the director of communications and outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.

Silicon Valley Works to Improve Career Pathways for Community Colleges Students

Kanter at Google

Under Secretary Martha Kanter speaks with students during her visit to Google headquarters. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

With a putting green, 18 cafeterias, gardens and even a giant statue of a dinosaur, one may not associate Google’s massive headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., as a place where Department of Education officials, educators and business leaders come together to discuss career pathways for community college students.

Yet during a recent stop by U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, the novelty of Google’s complex were the last thing on the mind as leaders from Google, Cisco Systems, Lockheed Martin—Space Systems and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group came together for a panel discussion on innovative strategies to improve career pathways for community college students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The 90-minute discussion – in front of a large audience comprised of regional industry leaders, community college presidents, K-12 educators, local policymakers and students – included Kanter’s detailed description of the Obama Administration’s support of STEM education at community colleges, highlighting the $2 billion Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training grant program that funds the pairing of community colleges with workforce partners to ensure that graduates are career-ready with the knowledge and skills that employers need.

Kanter speaks with educators at GoogleAfter the formal program and a Q-and-A session ended, many of the participants stayed to continue the discussion. Dennis Cima, senior vice president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an association of 380 Silicon Valley employers, talked about the value of linking K-12 schools, community colleges and businesses.

“We know how important it is to create connections between education and industry,” Cima said. “Because once those connections are made, then industry has the ability to really help education fill its own needs. This was an opportunity to open people’s eyes about how important those public-private partnerships are.”

Google’s director of education and university relations, Maggie Johnson, who was a panelist, said that she found the session to be a good start because it brought the right people together.

“I really liked the part that came out around how there are very many different sectors that need to come together and coordinate in order to really make something happen,” Johnson said. “We got the community colleges in the room; we have industry; we have government. So at least we got everybody in the room. Where it goes from here, we’ll have to see.”

Kanter’s assessment of the value was similar to Johnson’s. “I think it was the beginning of what I hope will become a call to action, so the different sectors of education, business, philanthropy, government, labor, and community partners can come together to say, ‘How can these stakeholders – working together across sectors – architect a plan for this region to lead the way, through innovation, to make sure that every student gets the best possible education and is prepared, college-and-career ready, for the jobs now and for the future?’”

Joe Barison is the Director of Communications and Outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.

Indian Tribal Leaders Give ED Input on Needs of Urban Indian Students

Named in honor of Chief Seattle of the Duwamish tribe, Seattle was a fitting site for a recent U.S. Department of Education (ED) learning session on improving urban Indian education.

Arlie Neskahi

Arlie Neskahi, Native American Education Program Manager for the Seattle Public Schools and a member of the Diné Nation.

William Mendoza, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on American Indians and Alaska Natives, and Joyce Silverthorne, Director of ED’s Office of Indian Education, listened as tribal leaders, Indian-education stakeholders and the general public spoke from their experience and their hearts about the priorities for urban Indian youth in Seattle’s schools.

“These urban, Native consultations are historic,” said Arlie Neskahi, Native American Education Program Manager for the Seattle Public Schools and a member of the Diné Nation. “The majority [consultations] in the past have been done just with tribes.”

Moderator Ross Braine, the University of Washington’s acting tribal liaison and member of Apsaalooke Nation led the day’s session. Braine ensured that every speaker was heard and maintained the right pace with insight and humor.

Key participants at the session spoke about the importance of having ED in the room. “As educators, we’ve gone to tribal settings, and we sat in the back of the room, listening,” said Neskahi. “So now we’re getting to stand before these federal representatives and share as Native educators. It’s beautiful to me.”

Mary Wilber, Title VII Coordinator for Washington State’s Lake Washington, Bellevue and North Shore School Districts, also saw great importance in the session. “I know the needs for our children…I also know the successes. And those successes need to be shared with people from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Indian Education, and Mr. Mendoza,” she said.

Mendoza agreed with Wilber. “Our learning session in Seattle is critical to the White House initiative, because each of these areas that the initiative relates to…brings to the initiative a certain uniqueness that we couldn’t otherwise garner through the reservation lens,” he said.

Joyce Silverthorne explained that for ED’s Office of Indian Education, “it’s been critical… to look at what [Seattle’s urban-Native community] have learned and what they are seeing as the most important issues, and to help them to share that with other people across the country.”

This Urban-Native Education Learning Session was a continuation of federal roundtable discussions that began this year to offer tribal leaders and others a chance to provide substantive feedback on the goals and strategies of an Executive Order by President Obama entitled: “Improving American Indian Education and Alaska Native Educational Opportunities and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities.”

As the session wound down, Mendoza reflected on the day. “We’re very optimistic that today was further validation that we can better help educators at the state and the tribal level make more meaningful connections to their students,” he said.
For more information on ED’s tribal consultation and learning sessions, please go to

Joe Barison is the Director of Communications and Outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.

Sitting Higher Upon Camelback

As with any good school, it’s all about the students. At Imagine Elementary at Camelback in Phoenix, Marcos, a 7th-grader, says, “Being in this school really helped me out with my future . . . becoming a better student, becoming a better me.”

If you said that Imagine Elementary has made progress because of its School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the U.S. Department of Education, you would be right. You’d also be making a major understatement – kind of like saying that Phoenix’s July sunshine is warm. It’s true, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

Imagine Elementary at Camelback teachers Ivan Panchenko (left) and Ben Abel join Principal Freddie Villalon (right) and three 7th-graders inside the school’s main entrance.

Imagine Elementary at Camelback teachers Ivan Panchenko (left) and Ben Abel join Principal Freddie Villalon (right) and three 7th-graders inside the school’s main entrance.

In November 2010, Imagine Elementary’s new Principal Freddie Villalon arrived. “When I walked in,” Villalon recalls, “only 10 percent of the kids in the 3rd grade had passed the test in reading. We were identified as a failing school, one of the 15 most challenging schools in Arizona. We were looking at being closed down.”

But fall 2010 was also when SIG money from the U.S. Department of Education arrived through the Arizona Department of Education, which awarded Imagine Elementary at Camelback $2.3 million to turn around over the next three years.

Principal Villalon’s strategy was to add rigor to the curriculum while giving positive reinforcement to teachers and to students. Now half-way through the SIG timeframe, the school has a new academic culture – one of high expectations by school leadership, faculty, support staff, community, parents and, perhaps most of all, by students.

The turnaround gained momentum when Villalon noticed that a 3rd-grade reading teacher, Chandni Varma, raised her class’s performance so that 52 percent of her students met the reading standards. The principal took action. “We asked Mrs. Varma, ‘How did you go from 10 percent to 52 percent?’” Varma described her approach as one that included the art of teaching with the creative application of a commercial reading product. Villalon shared the results with other teachers and highlighted the success, demonstrating that Imagine students are capable of success.

Teachers throughout the school responded to the new culture of rewarding success in the classroom. “We highlighted those teachers that did well, we reinforced them with some bonuses, with some recognition, with some awards,” Villalon said.

Villalon is quick to point out that the success belongs to what he calls “this awesome team,” which includes his students’ parents. One strategy is to send home quarterly assessment results with certificates for students who are meeting or exceeding standards. “In our newsletters,” Villalon said, “we show bar graphs of how we did in the previous year. How we’re doing in comparison to other schools.  Every parent in my school has my personal cell phone number, so they can call me about any issue, any question.”

Angela Denning, deputy associate superintendent for school improvement and intervention for the Arizona Department of Education, worked with Principal Villalon from the start. “Before the SIG monies were awarded, there wasn’t a focus on student learning,” Denning said. “Kids would come in; kids would go out. There wasn’t pride in the school as a whole, and that came out in behaviors and test scores, and dramatic drops in attendance and participation.”

Denning believes the SIG award made the critical difference in the school’s turnaround. “Since the SIG money has been awarded, one of the biggest changes was that the charter holder itself – Imagine – came in and swarmed the school. They started to put in a support system that was absolutely necessary for students to start learning.”

The state department of education has maintained an active role from the start. “We assigned two education specialists to each one of our School Improvement Grant schools, and they came out on a regular basis, giving feedback, monitoring their progress,” Denning said.

Student Christian says that the secret to the school’s success is no secret. “It’s the hard work and dedication that the teachers put into it.”

Perhaps the most heartfelt assessment of the Imagine at Camelback success story came from Denning. “This elementary school cares about children, and they care about student learning,” Denning said. “If I had children, they’d go here.”

Editor’s note: Angela Denning has begun a new assignment as deputy associate superintendent for exceptional student services for the Arizona Department of Education.

Joe Barison is the Director of Communications and Outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.