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‘Schools of Distinction’ honored by Intel

In the spirit of innovation, education stakeholders gathered Sept. 15 in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the six schools that were named Intel’s Schools of Distinction for 2009. Located in such diverse areas of the country as the busy Bronx and the California desert, these schools all show that open-mindedness and creativity can help foster success in teaching math and science.

Held in one of D.C.’s most scenic areas, this year’s Intel Schools of Distinction Awards were a sight to be seen. Walking to the venue, one passed salsa bands and dancers, late-lunch Capitol Hill workers enjoying al-fresco tidbits, and armed security guards that eventually led to the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center–where the awards took place.

In the crisp white dome of the building, understatedly called "The Pavilion," representatives from the winning schools, as well as reporters and ed-tech industry executives, sat in white satin chairs amid ribbons of sunlight pouring in through the windows of the dome as wafts from the white centerpiece roses filled the senses.

"We are here today, with the six winning schools, ranging from all across the country to celebrate their innovation and to show that excellence can occur in any setting," said Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation, which is responsible for choosing and hosting the winning schools. "Schools today are eager to prepare their students for a career in a math- or science-related field and to be engaged citizens in this era of technology and innovation. We seek to recognize the schools that are doing this best, and to share their models as broadly as possible."

Eighteen schools in all were selected as finalists in two categories: math and science. Three elementary, middle, and high schools in each category received cash grants of $2,500 from the Intel Foundation.
The six winners (one elementary, middle, and high school in each of the two categories) received $10,000 cash grants and more than $100,000 in products and services from sponsors. Sponsors included Absolute Software, BrainWare SAFARI, DyKnow, eInstruction, Elluminate, Pinnacle, the Internet Community Action Network (I-CAN), Inspiration Software, Pearson, SAS, Scantron, SMART Technologies, and Toshiba.

Meet the six winners:


– Cedar Park Elementary School, Trumann, Ark. Cedar Park attributes its success to well-trained teachers and dedicated math coaches. Student proficiency has improved 91 percent as a result of what the school calls a "comprehensive program that supports teachers, students, and parents." Lead teachers share professional development and guide colleagues; the math coach brings new approaches to teaching by designing lessons based on individual student needs and analyzes student assessment data to keep teaching aligned with student progress.

– Urban Assembly for Applied Math and Science, Bronx, N.Y. Urban Assembly is based in a diverse South Bronx community and implements "a strategic organization of teachers, ongoing team members, purposeful scheduling, and extended school time," says the school. Through this organization, 81.5 percent of students score at or above grade level and 34 percent of special-needs students show an improvement in math. The school believes that students learn best when confronted with authentic tasks in which teachers work with students in making real-world connections to engineering, science, history, medicine, sports, music, and art.

– Lynn English High School, Lynn, Mass. Lynn English’s learning environment challenges students to assume active roles as self-directed learners, with teachers functioning as "coaches," providing guidance and direction. Ninety-five percent of students pass state assessments, and second-language learners are taught in their native language. Students complete algebra, geometry, and enroll in a variety of math courses, ranging in skill level. Students also can choose courses in biotechnology, computer-aided design and drafting, or technology certification programs within the Cisco Networking Academy.


– Oakcliff Elementary, Doraville, Ga. Oakcliff is one of the most diverse schools in the nation, with students enrolled from 67 countries and every continent except Antarctica. "Through strong leadership, staff commitment, interdisciplinary curriculum, and community support," Oakcliff is a Title 1 School of Excellence, says the school. Oakcliff is also a certified wildlife habitat where students explore and learn to protect local forests, fields, ponds, and streams. Oakcliff’s Small Fry to Go (SFtG) program has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the No. 1 after-school program in the nation.

– Palm Desert Middle School, Palm Desert, Calif. Palm Desert, a charter school, credits dramatic students gains–student scores on California’s eighth-grade science test rose from 63 percent proficiency in 2006 to 78 percent in 2008–to dedicated science teachers and an engaged student body. Six years ago, the school received the Federal Voluntary Public School Choice Grant and focused the award on environmental science and stewardship in classrooms and the community. The school includes a large garden and outdoor research area, and life, earth, and physical sciences and robotics enhance the curriculum.

– Illinois Mathematics & Science Academy, Aurora, Ill. This state agency-created school has students design and conduct hands-on experiments, make observations, analyze data, draw conclusions, and communicate evidence-based principles. Students also "delve into the scientific literature and build understanding by synthesizing information and investigation through writing," says the school. These skills are then extended with electives and through the Student Inquiry and Research program (SIR). Through SIR, students partner with scientists on diagnostics, nanotechnology, medical research, and more. All students take a "Methods in Scientific Inquiry" skills class as well. In 2008, 86 percent of students scored a "3" or higher (out of 5) on Advanced Placement exams.

"Times are really changing, and these schools are great examples of how we can help our students become members of a global economy," said Aneesh Chopra, who recently became federal chief technology officer (CTO) of the United States under the Obama administration. Chopra, a previous secretary of technology for Virginia, was a keynote speaker at the awards.

"An example of how fast times are changing is [this]," said Chopra. "What would you say the chief export of Virginia is? Tobacco, right? Well, until a few years ago, that was Virginia’s main export. Today, it’s semiconductor chips. Imagine that: Today, Virginia’s main export is a technology that was not even invented a few years back. We need students and educators like these to help bring our economy back to the cutting edge of science, technology, engineering, and math."

And although these schools are being honored for excellence in math and science instruction, Chopra said, they also remember the "T" and the "E" in STEM education: technology and engineering.

"The workforce needs tech specialists and engineers, and we need to start thinking of ways we can help fill this shortage," Chopra concluded. "What are the new curricula we can introduce to create technology specialists and engineers? How can we harness the hidden talents that lie in potential high school and college dropouts, as well as adults who are looking into their GEDs? How can we find, and support, ‘T’ and ‘E’ talents in our community? These are questions we must brainstorm answers to, and I think these schools are doing a great job of nurturing these talents."

At the end of the ceremony, Intel announced the name of the Star Innovator school–one of the six winning schools chosen to receive an additional $25,000 grant from the Intel Foundation, as well as additional products and services in recognition of its outstanding science and math programs.

This year’s Star Innovator was the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA).

"Intel’s DNA is about innovation, and we’re so proud to be honored in this way," said Max McGee, IMSA president. "Every one of these schools could have been a Star Innovator, so we really appreciate this."

McGee said that, while meeting the sponsors during a boat cruise the night before was a special treat, because he "got to hear about so many innovative developments," what was truly a wonderful experience was meeting representatives from the other winning schools.

"You know, you go to conferences and you think, ‘If I can take away one or two good ideas, it’s been worth it.’ But here, with all of you, hearing about how you deal with diversity, the great curriculum you all have, the focus everyone has on student engagement and achievement, my head feels like it’s going to explode!" he said.

Intel will begin accepting applications for next year’s Schools of Distinction Awards program in early November.


Intel’s 2009 Schools of Distinction Awards

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Empowering Education Through Technology resource center. Integrating technology into the classroom can be a challenge without the right guidance. Go to: Empowering Education Through Technology

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