Unit 4 using $9.6M federal grant to introduce magnet themes at 3 schools

Unit 4 using $9.6M federal grant to introduce magnet themes at 3 schools

CHAMPAIGN — Unit 4 plans to implement new educational themes in three of its schools by August, thanks to funding from a $9.6 million grant the U.S. Department of Education awarded the district.

The grant, announced last fall and set to kick in this summer, will turn three district schools into magnet schools — ones with specialized courses or curriculums based on a theme — and provide the funding for magnet development over the course of five years.

— For Stratton Elementary, the theme will be fine arts.

— For Garden Hills Elementary: math, engineering and leadership.

— For Franklin Middle School: science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

The plan is for Peter Foertsch, now the principal at Barkstall Elementary, to transition into a new role — Unit 4's director of magnet schools — later this year. He described the magnet theme as an "umbrella" that covers an entire school's plans for teaching and learning.

"So the curriculum in the school is still the same," he said. "But it will be accentuated with the theme."

The district chose the three campuses deliberately, Foertsch said, to draw more parents' interest when they are registering for schools of their choice.

"It's not that these campuses are doing poor, but it's to enhance features that make them unique," he said. "It's a great time to have that because these are the schools who aren't going to be impacted by the referendum money as much."

Foertsch said the grant money will provide various ways of supporting the schools' new themes, including professional development for staff, new technology or equipment relevant to the theme, as well as new renovations where the district deems it necessary.

How a school implements its given theme will differ by campus.

At Garden Hills, Principal Elizabeth Ladd said, the math, engineering and leadership theme could mean creating more project-based learning opportunities for students, some of which may be similar to one students tried this year.

"We had an upper elementary class pair with a younger class, and they put together a catapult to see how far they could launch a block cube," she said. "One of the interesting things about engineering is that we think of it as huge projects, but it's really about 'what do I use every day that I can use to launch this across the room?'"

It's also never too early to learn problem-solving, critical thinking and perseverance, Ladd said, adding that engineering breeds those kinds of skills, which is why it's part of the elementary school's theme.

"Math and engineering are impactful on almost any career you have, as well as those collaborative skills," she said. "I think the most important thing to think through is how we can really be providing skills students need in the 21st century."

Garden Hills will also undergo renovations intended to help with its engineering and math themes, including the addition of collaboration spaces and an engineering lab.

"We have, right now, collaboration spaces, but we're going to renovate those spaces to be more engineering- and math-oriented," Ladd said. "We're going to get SMART boards and make sure we've got the most up-to-date equipment. We're going to be creating an engineering lab where we'll have engineering equipment and a 3-D printer."

'Professional dance focus'

Similarly, Franklin Middle School will add renovations and products that emphasize learning opportunities to correspond with the school's STEAM theme. Foertsch said this would include a renovated recording studio.

Technological additions will also come to Stratton Elementary. Like at other magnet schools, students will have access to more advanced technology, such as 3-D printers.

What would be different for Stratton, however, is an emphasis on dance, which Principal Stephanie Eckels said the school plans on the grant money to provide, rounding out an already-diverse set of arts programming within the school.

"We use art as a way of teaching academics," Eckels said. "We're looking forward to a professional dance focus. We're looking at a dance teacher here."

Stratton already implements music and art through the school, offering jewelry, guitar and painting studios, as well as periodic "showcases" that combine performance art with traditional subjects such as social skills.

The grant money will help the school add tap dance to its offerings, as well as provide opportunities for teacher development that will help them better integrate teaching arts and traditional subjects together, Eckels said.

"The bigger thing we'll have is professional development that's top-notch," she said. "That's not available to everybody."

'Community' investment

In general, Foertsch said the grant will provide a "ton" of professional development opportunities for school staff to think about new ways to "do school."

"As adult learners, we have to keep learning how to teach our kids," he said. "If you've been teaching 20 years, what you've been doing now is not what you did when you started. It evolves over time. It's important that if we keep doing school the same way, we will keep getting the same results."

Ladd said everyone would benefit from the entire staff understanding how to operate within the school's theme, which is something professional development would provide.

"When I think about development, it's going to be making sure that all of our staff — not just classroom teachers but all of our staff that work with students — (have) that same understanding of what our purpose and day-to-day work is around," she said.

Although the grant is limited to five years' of funding, Foertsch said some of the changes the schools implement should remain sustainable past that end date.

"It's words right now, but we're putting it into practice," he said. "People will be able to see what a magnet school looks like and feel what it looks like. We are investing in the community because a big part of the grant is the community partnerships. Together as a community, we can have a successful education system."

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