Throughout the Commonwealth, Intermediate Units are serving their communities and students. Check out our IU Spotlights to learn more about some of their efforts:
When students at Northwest Tri-County IU 5’s STEM summer camp launched space balloons, they weren’t just competing to see whose balloon could reach a stratospheric 60,000 feet. They were actually conducting STEM exercises deliberately aligned with the educational content that schools must deliver.
“The students are actually measuring the sphere of the balloon,” says IU 5 Assistat Director Nick Paolini. “They’re calculating circumference. How many pounds of helium do I need to put in this balloon to raise a payload that weighs 1,200 grams, in order to reach 60,000 feet? There’s a whole science calculation behind that.”
While schools focus on teaching the STEM skills vital to the economy of today and tomorrow, IU 5 is helping assure that STEM activities aren’t just fun exercises but actually reinforce Pennsylvania Department of Education standards – the “eligible content” that students must master in every subject. Through its Applied Curriculum service, the IU develops standards-based classroom activities that teachers can use.
“We bring the curriculum to life,” says Paolini. “We focus on the standards in science, math, and English language arts to figure out the hands-on projects that can support the eligible content that’s being tested in the spring.”
The STEM summer camp, called ConstrX, is part of the initiative. The space-balloon exercises addressed a long list of academic standards in English language arts for science and technology, including determining the central ideas of a text, carrying out multistep experiments, and writing conclusions using facts to support claims.
In one ConstrX exercise, students were given little direction in a challenge to build controllable blimps with balloons and remote-control cars. Few actually succeeded, but in ConstrX and the Applied Curriculum service, “we celebrate failure, because you learn from that,” says Paolini. “One of the things that’s a culture shock is when we show up on the first day and say, ‘We want you to fail.’”
Students who are homeless might be living with another family, moving among hotels and shelters, or kicked out of their homes. Amid lives of instability, help with daily needs keeps them in school and focused on learning.
“They might have a roof over their heads, but those transient people are homeless,” said Wendy Kinnear, Region 5 coordinator for the Pennsylvania Education for Children & Youth Experiencing Homelessness Program.
Kinnear works from Midwestern IU IV, coordinating efforts in a state-designated, 10-county region of western and northwestern Pennsylvania. There, 2,790 students were classified as homeless in 2016-17, according to data released in 2018 by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Kinnear’s team includes site coordinators, program workers in other IUs, and homeless liaisons in every school district, assuring schools the resources to provide uninterrupted learning in each homeless child’s original school, as required by federal law.
Homelessness can undermine education. Students lose three to six months of academic progress with every change in school district. Those who change schools frequently are likelier to become dropouts. Disruption of schooling can perpetuate the cycle of poverty by limiting students’ future earning power.
Kinnear and her team distribute federal grants that help schools meet individual student needs, such as buying a winter coat or paying summer school fees. They train educators on awareness. Partnerships with community housing coalitions and faith organizations opens doors to emergency help, such as a bed for the night, and long-term solutions.
Kinnear sees the difference in lives changed.
- The high school graduate exploring community college options who would have dropped out if not for the clothing and other help he received.
- The girl who was homeless in her junior and senior years who graduated, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and is pursuing a career in housing and homeless services.
- The student who was living on the street but is now going to college, thanks to help from his homeless liaison and a faith-based coalition that found him a home.
“We know that we’re reaching a lot of these kids,” said Kinnear. “It’s an ongoing process, but we’ve made an impact. We have more kids graduating and more kids staying in school and doing better academically because of the programming we’re putting in place.”
The student hated every day in her new high school – until the district hired a teacher who taught computer coding. That student, who shared her experience at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s 2017 STEAM Showcase, is now president of the robotics and coding clubs she founded and plans to attend Carnegie Mellon University.
Her story demonstrated real-life impact as the AIU’s grants for school instruction in STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and math – help western Pennsylvania’s young people envision their place in the 21st century economy.
In 2016, the AIU funneled grants of $20,000 each to 26 school districts in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The grants were made possible by the Chevron, Claude Worthington Benedum, and Grable foundations, and it wasn’t a “here’s the check, see you in a year” situation, said Assistant Executive Director for Teaching and Learning Rosanne Javorsky.
The AIU helps schools define goals for use of the funds, starting with fundamental questions of the communications, collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving skills sought by employers. The grants serve purposes customized to each district. Schools have used the funds to:
Help students explore the use of renewable energy in their own school.
Create “maker spaces” equipped with the technology for turning ideas into reality.
Infuse STEAM learning throughout the entire curriculum and create partnerships that expose students to real-world STEAM practices in local organizations.
The results are displayed at the AIU’s annual STEAM Showcase, where tech leaders convene with students. Pittsburgh's most innovative organizations in such budding STEAM industries as artificial intelligence, design thinking, and gaming spotlight their initiatives and the skills they need in their workers.
Students demonstrate the ideas they cooked up through the STEAM grants distributed by the AIU’s Center for Creativity.
Through the showcase and the STEAM grants, students understand how their STEAM skills fit in the workplace they will soon enter.
“The showcase is one of the few spaces where you see students, educators, community members, business leaders, technologists and artists all interacting for a common purpose,” said Javorsky “Everybody’s thinking about what we want the future of this region to be.”
Nine-year-old Robert was having “a really difficult day,” being belligerent and throwing himself on the floor. Intermediate Unit 1 Assistant Executive Director Donald Martin happened by and offered to show the emotional support student “something really cool.” Intrigued, Robert followed Martin up the hall and into IU1’s Fab Lab, where a teacher demonstrated 3-D printing.
“Within about 90 seconds, Robert had deescalated,” said Martin. “He was absolutely mesmerized and on task and very inquisitive.”
That serendipitous moment has since blossomed into a unique, comprehensive approach using hands-on curriculum to unlock the talents of students with significant emotional issues.
When they were first introduced to Fab Lab, a Chevron-sponsored maker space, the students simply played with equipment as a break from classroom routine. But soon, teachers were trained, and students in kindergarten through 12th grade were attending weekly classes. With very little adaptation of the invention-and-entrepreneurship curriculum, students were setting aside their outbursts to concentrate on creating night lights and laser-cut chandelier pieces.
“They’re nontraditional learners,” said Coordinator of Mental Health Services Joe Mahoney. “This is hands-on. It’s visual. These kids are extremely intelligent and extremely capable. Once they’re past barriers, we find they’re on par or better than students who don’t have these emotional issues.”
The district and Penn State-based analysis group Chartlytics are collecting data and measuring outcomes, but in the meantime, anecdotal results have been dramatic. Students are building self-confidence and returning to their regular schools with newfound leadership skills. High-school students are considering career and technical schooling. Even the IU learned a lesson about putting hands-on learning tools in its regular classrooms.
After all, notes Martin, the IU is “not only here to get students through high school but to transition them to adulthood.”
“Our goal is to demonstrate that through this curriculum and this type of teaching and learning, students have a far greater chance of survival, in terms of getting out there and getting a job and living a quality life, even with the barriers they currently have.”
Perennial champs Parkland High School lost a big Friday night game. At Saturday practice, backup middle linebacker Alex Ocasio walked up to the coach and asked, “What can I do to make the team better?”
He asked the question using sign language through Susan Arndt, interpreter for Carbon Lehigh IU 21.
“It’s football, so I can’t cry,” Arndt says with a laugh. “I became so proud of him at that moment that I wanted to cry. He doesn’t think about himself. He always thinks about everyone around him and how he can make their lives better because of what they’ve done for him.”
Deaf since birth, Alex had few language skills when he met Arndt as a kindergartner. Today, he is a high school senior, class of 2019, and they are partners on the football field, changing their own lives and the lives around them by bridging worlds through communication.
Arndt interprets for Alex on the field and the sidelines, sometimes using football terminology the two created. His first attempts to pursue his dream of playing football left him sitting on the bench at another school, when they said he was deaf and couldn’t play. But at Parkland, coaches and teammates are learning sign language, the better to communicate with their friend and teammate.
“Football has changed his world,” says Arndt. “It’s made him more confident. I’ve seen him turn from a young man who was very insecure and lost, and into a world of football where he considers this team brothers, and they consider him a brother.”
Plus, she added, “when he became strong in football, he became strong in school. He learned the work ethic from football to study hard in school.”
As a CLIU 21 Educational Interpreter, Arndt works largely with elementary students who are Deaf and hard of hearing. She opens up their worlds, modeling language and vocabulary that expand opportunities for engaging and learning.
“It’s equal access in the classroom, making sure the deaf student has everything that a hearing student would have,” she says. Alex, she adds, inspires those younger students to “fight the adversity that they’ve been dealt and just keep pushing and finding out who they are.”
Arndt and her husband, Rich, have always been supportive, says Alex. Her interpreting at team meetings, practice, and “has helped me feel a part of the team. Her being there has helped me understand what the head coach is trying to convey to me, so I can play my position and improve my skills."
As Alex approaches graduation, Arndt says that football has made him “this confident person who knows that he can do anything he wants to do. He knows that whatever comes at him, he’s not going to listen to people who say he can’t do something.”
As a school superintendent, Shawn Kovac had trouble finding credible providers for security services.
“Those you did contact were willing to do reviews for free, but if it happened to be a camera salesman who came out, guess what you needed?” he says.
When he became an IU official, Kovac learned that many superintendents shared his frustration. School security demands expertise only available outside the education realm, but trusted, reasonably priced vendors were hard to find.
That was the beginning of the Region 6 Safe Schools Initiative. The effort combines IUs’ longstanding experience in cost-saving consortiums with information-sharing that bridges the gap between educational priorities and proven security practices.
Under the initiative, districts in three Pennsylvania intermediate units – Appalachia IU 8, Central IU 10, and Tuscarora IU 11, where Kovac is now executive director – can find preferred security partners on a clearinghouse website (safeschools.tiu11.org). The partners are vendors recommended by member school districts, all led by officials with proven security credentials.
In exchange for the listing that reaches dozens of school districts, companies agree to discount their fees. They also get guidance in complying with Pennsylvania’s Act 44, the sweeping 2018 school security law, in order to better serve their school clients.
Listed vendors cover the spectrum of services, from threat prevention and mitigation to training on reacting to active incidents, Kovac said. They include a retired FBI agent specializing in intelligence-gathering for prevention, a retired Pennsylvania State Police trooper who conducts threat assessments, and a veteran-owned business that trains teachers in active-shooter responses. A new aspect is applying the consortium model to making specialized mental health services available for use in crises.
The Safe Schools Initiative also conducts an annual summit connecting superintendents and safety staff from districts and IUs statewide with high-level security vendors. Those vendors have included a Secret Service official whose interviews and profiles of school shooters contribute to threat analyses. All services are free to participating school districts.
“We’re providing resources for school officials who don’t have the time to go out and find them themselves,” Kovac said. “They’re providing recommendations that their peers trust, and they’re getting a consortium price on customized services that assure the safety of staff and students.”
When it comes to computer science, teaching students to program computers is only half the picture.
“Computer science is understanding how to use a computer as a tool to solve problems -- how to break a problem down into smaller steps, how to iterate or attack a problem and keep trying over and over to solve it, how to use the computer as a tool to work with big data,” says Delaware County IU 25’s Lauren Poutasse.
While computer science is part of Pennsylvania’s core standards, schools face challenges in delivering. Rural schools struggle to find qualified teachers. Urban schools must squeeze time out of overbooked days and have access to properly working technology.
That’s why DCIU said yes when invited in 2016 to be a regional partner for Code.org, a nonprofit building computer science instruction capacity in schools nationwide. By 2020, two-thirds of jobs will require a computer science background, and students exposed to it will have a leg up in a broad range of fields, says Poutasse, who is leading the initiative.
As Code.org’s Pennsylvania partner, DCIU is responsible for:
- Training existing K-5 teachers to incorporate computer science into classroom practices.
- Providing training and community support for a project-based course in middle schools, and a new Advanced Placement computer science principles course in high schools.
The initiative strives for equity through outreach to underserved students and by offering all training, travel, curricula, and materials for free, funded by Code.org. In Year Two, DCIU is partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and other intermediate units to take training on the road, minimizing travel time for participating teachers, especially in rural areas.
In its first year, the initiative trained 241 K-5 teachers and was installed in middle and high schools in 43 districts. On the way toward the goal of exposing every student to computer science, Code.org is upending myths and teaching students how to transport their newfound problem-solving skills from one conundrum to another.
“It’s about thinking skills for students,” says Poutasse. “Computer science is not an individual subject. It’s practiced in teams. Creativity is a big part of computer science.”
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