What do you get when you add an “A” to STEM? You get an artistic and creative look at science, technology, engineering and math while creating an environment where students thrive. Walter Bracken STEAM Academy in Las Vegas, Nevada is an incredible example of what can happen when you add art to STEM. Starting at the top, with the principal Katie Decker, the staff at Bracken believes in the power of mixing art and creativity right into the science, tech, engineering and math and they are proving that the STEAM focus, done right, works so well that it creates an “award-winning” school.
Recently, Katie Decker was named Principal of the Year by Magnet School of America (MSA) because, according to the MSA, Katie “has developed an effective magnet program (STEAM focused) that transformed the school completely. When Ms. Decker was appointed principal in 2001, Walter Bracken was one of the lowest performing schools in the district. This year, the award-winning program has received High Achievement status from the state of Nevada for Adequate Yearly Progress and ranked among the top 5% of all schools in the district.”
The Getting Smart team had the honor of visiting Bracken STEAM Academy with Katie and witnessed exactly what it is that raises a school up to this award winning status. Here are some of the components it takes to be that awesome:
A school needs to be connected and have the support of the surrounding community. But those partnerships don’t always come easy. It takes a principal and staff who are willing to open their doors and share what is happening inside the school to help create those partnership. According to Katie, partnerships go two ways and, it can feel risky, but the school has to be open and welcome the community in so that the stakeholders can experience, first hand, the great learning that happens every day. Project based learning is at it’s best here at Bracken, with community members lending their expertise to allow a student experience not often seen at a traditional public school. One great example is that Bracken students work with actual architects to build sandcastles, testing what it takes to create strong walls, staircases and roofs and finishing with a huge sandcastle building contest- just one example of what can happen by partnering with community members to offer students learning beyond the core curriculum.
A well supplied, comfortable parent work room right in the heart of the library is a sure sign that parents are an essential partner in creating this award winning culture inside Bracken. Katie and the faculty know and welcome the parents, communicate effectively and work collaboratively with them. The Bracken Parent Workroom is worth showing off as the place where teacher help lists are quickly accomplished, students receive tutoring consistently, incredible projects are organized, like the school garden feeding into a biannual farmers’ market and the countless volunteers are organized to create all the incredible murals that transform the entire school grounds into a work of art.
Katie never stops thinking of new ideas.There is not yet a completed vision of Bracken because Katie is always thinking about “what else” or “what next.” She has a music garden in the works for next year… an outdoor space with play equipment and outdoor instruments where the kids can go to play with sound and make music- definitely not the typical recess equipment found at most schools. Also, a TED talk by teacher, Stephen Ritz inspired Katie to want to turn one of the school huge parking lot bordering walls into a huge garden.
The Bracken staff shows creativity in their teaching style and classroom design. Every classroom space is not only inviting, but stimulating and full of details that make students excited to be inside their walls. The school vision and the administrative support allow for incredible things happen, like the Lego room and physical science lab, a chef in residence program, music labs are just a few examples. Every classroom has a unique theme and feel that definitely invite students to engage and explore in their learning.
Grade level teams assemble a variety of instructional components and often use Edmodo to communicate and collaborate on assignments.
Effective Use of Technology
Bracken Academy is a great example of blended learning. The homework for each grade is assigned and completed online, found on their specified grade website. All the teachers take turns creating the website and keeping the homework up to date. They use this tech to ensure the students get the practice they need to advance. When spending time learning in the computer labs, students work at their individual pace and on their personal level. Computer labs are open before and after school so that all students have access to the sites, in case there is not a computer with internet access at home. Whether they are at home or at school, students are using digital technology to strengthen their own learning, ensuring no time is wasted doing a worksheet,etc. that they have already mastered or is beyond their level of learning.
What could be considered the school mascots, the tortoises, live in a custom built habitat right in the main courtyard of the school. The students visit and care for these little guys everyday. Talk about making school fun, and memorable! Every space in Bracken feels like the perfect place to learn and creates a culture of positivity and success.
Bracken is beautiful, interesting, and bustling with positive energy that, very transparently, trickles down from the leadership. The murals that cover the walls of the school do more than just decorate- they help turn the school into a physical space in which students want to learn while, at the same time, tell the success story of this special school.
The whirlwind lunch hour the Getting Smart team spent soaking in everything STEM + A = STEAM was invigorating. A school that could have all the excuses in the world to not be succeeding is, instead, a truly shining star in elementary education.Thanks Katie, for having us, and we can’t wait to get back again soon… maybe to shop at the farmers’ market, play in the music garden or see the next exciting project you have on the docket.