CHAMPAIGN — Spend a few minutes in any of Champaign's three magnet elementary schools, and you'll find they're a little different from the norm.
At Garden Hills Elementary, students post questions to inquiry boards and then research the answers, all while learning about cultures around the world.
At Booker T. Washington STEM Academy, they learn about science, math, engineering and technology, even when that means learning about force when kicking a ball in physical education.
At Stratton Leadership and Microsociety Magnet School, students learn financial literacy, citizenship and real-life skills by managing businesses and agencies, participating in elections and working to earn paychecks.
It's been more than a year since the Champaign schools received a $5 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The money supports the three magnet schools, and at all three, the goal is to engage students as they learn, in hopes they'll retain the knowledge better.
"It's really about innovation," and teaching students in a highly interactive, "intentionally engaging" environment, said Cheryl Camacho, Champaign's director of magnet programs.
The schools are working on reaching the goals included in their grant application, finding successes, working through challenges and preparing to find ways to allow the magnet schools to continue after the grant expires.
Asking questions, finding answers
At Garden Hills Elementary, a candidate school for accreditation through the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program, if second-grader Kayla Fitzgerald has a question about bees or ants, which her class has studied, she writes it on a Post-it note and puts it on a board that also lists other students' questions.
She can look up an answer, or one of her classmates can, and post a response.
This is called inquiry-based learning, and Garden Hills Principal Cheryl O'Leary believes students retain information better if they make the effort to seek answers.
"We're not just giving facts and figures," she said.
She said she's seen an increase in confidence and independence in students, and they're more willing to speak publicly "and defend what they're learning," O'Leary said.
For example, some students led this year's parent-teacher conferences, talking about what they've learned and what they want to learn. The climate of the building has changed.
"They're controlling their learning," O'Leary said. "We've seen nice growth."
She said the school is hoping to put in its application for accreditation in April 2014.
Most candidate schools take five years to ready their applications, she said, and Garden Hills will attempt to do so in three.
"I'm most proud of the way the staff, parents and students have embraced the changes," O'Leary said.
As the school works toward applying for accreditation, O'Leary said one goal is to host a fifth-grade exhibition, during which fifth-graders spend a lot of time researching a particular subject, then present to the staff and their classmates on their findings.
Another is to focus more on community outreach, so projects students do at Garden Hills benefit organizations or businesses outside the school.
For example, Garden Hills students will work with the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education to use traditional print-making techniques to make posters. Those posters could benefit an organization outside the school, O'Leary said.
"We want to give back to the community," O'Leary said.
Garden Hills third-grade teacher Courtney Ice has worked there for three years and said she especially appreciates how students can drive the direction of a lesson as they ask questions.
Teachers are also writing units that incorporate several different subjects. For example, if students are learning about the Civil War in social studies, the lessons extend to talk about things like conflict around the world, interpersonal relationships and conflict between characters in literature.
The idea is, the topic isn't just relegated to 40 minutes for one particular subject, Ice said.
The magnet grant pays for substitutes so teachers of the same grade level have time to rework the existing curriculum. She said it's also paid for her to go to training sessions for International Baccalaureate in Austin, Texas, and Memphis.
Thinking and doing
At Booker T. Washington, fifth-grader Kayla Israel enjoyed an activity that had her and classmates making mirrors and then using them in kaleidoscopes.
"We saw it turn silver and it was awesome," she said.
The fifth-graders then taught first-graders the lesson. That experience and others made Israel think maybe she wants to be a science teacher when she grows up.
Other times, students from University Laboratory High School come in to teach lessons on science to small groups of Washington students, and the school also works with several University of Illinois organizations and partnerships to educate both students and teachers.
Some of those include Entrepreneurial Leadership in STEM Teaching and Learning, a partnership between the UI and several school districts, the UI's Center for Physics of Living Cells, its College of Education and I-STEM, the UI's STEM education initiative.
Washington fifth-graders will work this week with the UI's Center for Nanoscale Chemical-Electrical-Mechanical Manufacturing Systems and a UI chemical engineer to engineer a skin-care line. They'll have it on display to the public at Urbana's Lincoln Square Village on Dec. 15, at the Urbana Business Association's Holiday Market.
Teachers at the school have taken weeks of chemistry and physics with "world-class professors" from the UI, magnet coordinator Martha Henss said, "not as teachers, but as learners."
The school is also working with the UI's National Society of Black Engineers.
"We want kids to see diversity in the fields" they're learning about, Henss said.
Henss said the school is one of a half-dozen "true STEM schools" in the country, as many others focus on one area of science, technology, engineering or math.
STEM "is integrated with everything we do," Henss said, whether it's a study of force in PE or Rube Goldberg in art to coordinate with lessons on simple machines.
She said she's proud of teachers, who have been rewriting curriculum, which includes more academic rigor.
"What we're trying to do is teach children to think," Henss said.
The business of learning
At Stratton, students work at businesses or agencies during microsociety time, earning paychecks in a currency called Jaguars. They can spend their Jaguars on products and services made by and/or performed by their classmates. They can do so during market time.
Charles West, the magnet coordinator at Stratton, spoke to one group of shoppers earlier this month before their market time started.
He reminded them that they work hard for their currency and that they should be able to tell him why they bought an item or service after doing so.
"You don't have to spend it all today," West said, reminding them that they might want to save up for a higher-priced item, or something classmates make in a limited quantity.
"Think about what you are buying," he told them, as they shouted their agreement in the school's gym.
Last year, when the magnet school started mid-year after the federal grant was announced, many students wouldn't have known to agree with the advice, he said.
And as students staffed the businesses and services where they work, they're also learning about how a market works, working together and maximizing profitability while still creating quality products.
Students have written business plans and in some cases, like the MicroSTEM University, are teaching their peers to make "goo."
They're also learning that the market changes, West said, because eventually, everyone who wants goo will have made it and will demand another activity.
Emi Loucks, a fifth-grader, is the manager of the Scales and Tails Reptile Zoo, which charges $9 for students to get in during market time.
She went through training to become a manager, she said, and prepared for the interview questions before interviewing for her position.
As a manager, "you have people to talk to and people to tell what to do," Loucks said.
"You kind of get the stress of life," Loucks said. "It's not easy to run a business."
West said the school has started integrating more real-life lessons into the classroom and working through the changes of turning a school into a society. The school also uses leadership training from Sean Covey, and so Stratton, too, is working to revamp its curriculum.
"Overall, there's just a buzz about the building," West said, and both adults and kids are learning. "The students are much more adaptable than the adults."
If you give a child a role and set some expectations, "they walk right into it," he said.
Progressing toward their goals
Camacho, the district's magnet programs director, said she's proud of how the schools have learned to work together.
"The work we're producing is better because of our collaboration," she said.
The schools have met some of the goals set forth in the schools' grant applicant.
One goal was to expose at least 50 percent of students to the magnet theme in the grant's first year. All students who attend magnet schools are exposed to the themes, Camacho said.
Another is to have 25 percent of staff members go through at least 25 hours of "magnet-related professional development" in the first year. That goal increases to 50 percent in the second year, and 90 percent of staff in the third year.
Last year, 82 percent of staff members at Booker T. Washington went through 25 hours or more. At Stratton, that number was 83.3 percent, and at Garden Hills, 69.2 percent.
Booker T. Washington has also met its goals to increase diversity in both applicants and students who enroll, Camacho said.
"The goals are focused on reducing racial minority isolation in schools and to increase diversity in each building," she said.
At Garden Hills, the students enrolled meet the school's diversity targets, but the pool of applicants to go there does not.
Neither goal has been met at Stratton.
All three magnet schools met the goal of increasing the size of the applicant pool by 5 percent each year.
The schools' magnet coordinators are working on marketing plans to try to attract more applicants, Camacho said.
"We want to make what is happening inside of (the magnet schools) appealing enough to apply," Camacho said.
One goal the schools haven't met is to have all racial groups meet or exceed state standards on ISAT tests.
Camacho said, when looking at data for the same groups of students in last year's fourth- and fifth-grade classes, on average, 20 percent of kids who didn't meet reading or math state standards in the year before the magnet schools started met those standards last year.
"Children are growing," she said.
Camacho said conversations will start this spring about how to sustain the magnet programs after the grant is done.
Giving teachers ample training is one way to make that happen.
What teachers learn now will stay in the district even after the grant money is no longer being used, Camacho said.
"It's an investment in our teachers and our administrators," Camacho said.