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So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

New science standards hard sell at cash-strapped Sylmar High School (Photos)

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Science Experiment: One of two stories looking at science in the schools – from pre-K to high school. Click here to read Part 2: UCLA Preschool and the California Science Center museum help turn kids into "pre-scientists."

Ronald Hitchcock has been teaching science at Sylmar High School for more than a decade. He's seen a lot of changes, but perhaps nothing has hit the school harder than the news last fall that it lost a $3.5 million QEIA grant.

"We're pretty cash strapped right now," he said. "The budget for the science department is usually in the $20,000 to $25,000 range for consumables and in reality this year we have just about $5,000."

Hitchcock has been following the development of new K-12 science standards, released by California and 25 other states earlier this month. He's excited about the potential of the new standards and likes their hands-on approach to learning.

The ambitious new standards seek to reinvent science education and transform students into 21st century thinkers, moving from an era of memorizing facts to one where students use critical thinking skills to actually do science. Traditional textbooks won't do the job.

But Hitchcock's not sure how his school will be able to implement the new standards, which will likely begin making their way into California classrooms in 2015. He estimates that each of the nine science teachers at Sylmar High School already spend between $500 and $3,500 of their own money on classroom supplies each year. 

Biology teacher Larry Demoto shares his concern.

"They keep bringing up new ideas, new things for us to do, but then they don't tell us where the money is going to come from," Demoto said. "We're scrambling to implement programs that we don't get enough money for."

Sylmar High is facing an assortment of problems: It's listed as a program improvement school due to its low test scores; it's facing dwindling enrollment numbers, which also reduces the budget; and it's in the midst of restructuring into four "small learning community schools."

"As a high school teacher I guess this is what I ultimately would love my high school students to be able to do," said Arleni Lopez, who teaches biology and physiology, as she flipped through the final draft of the high school standards, 22 pages of the entire 95-page document. "But it almost looks like college level thought process."

She's worried her students lack the basic reading and writing skills that they'd need to meet the standards.

Here's one requirement for ninth-twelfth graders, from page 74 of the new standards.

  • Develop a model to illustrate that the release or absorption of energy from a chemical reaction system depends upon the changes in total bond energy. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the idea that a chemical reaction is a system that affects the energy change. Examples of models could include molecular-level drawings and diagrams of reactions, graphs showing the relative energies of reactants and products, and representations showing energy is conserved.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include calculating the total bond energy changes during a chemical reaction from the bond energies of reactants and products.]

Several teachers interviewed for this story said they'd need additional schooling of their own to be able to teach the standards -- the first attempt at federal science standards since the mid 1990s. 

The California Board of Education is requesting public comment on the standards this week. They are expected to come before the board for final approval in November.

"Adopting and implementing them provides us with a language and a mechanism to rethink the way we teach science," said Martin Storksdieck, director of the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council. He worked on the science framework that the new standards are based on. 

"The hope," he said, "is that we’ll get everybody to have a better sense of what science education is."

One thing is certain: making the shift will cost schools millions in teacher training and classroom technology upgrades.

Technology will be a huge challenge for Sylmar High. The new standards are based on teaching methods that don't use traditional textbooks. But the school only has about 145 desktop computers available for its 2,300 students. Hitchcock said he receives handwritten assignments 90 percent of the time because students don't have enough access to computers. 

"You're really going to need a lot more computer power than we have," he said. 

And then there are the supplies needed to conduct experiments. The school has 60 microscopes, but Hitchcock says only about 25 of them work. A storage closet is littered with broken hot plates and distillation units that don't work either. He estimates that the school needs five times the amount of glassware it has. 

"It's incredibly frustrating," he said. "The equipment we're given is good, but the funds are never granted for keeping that equipment functioning."

This, according to Hitchcock, is a big part of the problem. The school and district have received grants to purchase new equipment but no funds to maintain them. When things break, students are often out of luck.

At one point the school had about 80 overhead projectors that needed one switch replaced. There was no money to fix them, so Hitchcock said the school had to buy new ones.

"A lot of our equipment is like that," he said. "Very simple fixes that we just can't do." 

Assistant Principal Gustavo Reyes, who oversees the science department, said the school's been swamped with tough choices. He said when word spread last fall that the school had lost the multi-million dollar grant, the reaction was almost as if someone had died.

The school had come just one point shy of meeting its API testing benchmark - one of the requirements to keep the grant funding.

"It was very gloomy," he said, remembering the meeting he was in where the school's principal, James Lee, shared the news. It was clear Lee had been up all night and hadn't slept, he said. 

"None of us could really comprehend at that moment what this was going to result in for the school," Reyes said. "We knew that it was going to be devastating but we didn't really know exactly how it was going to impact us." 

Reyes credits teachers for being creative with limited resources. Science teachers, he said, have created experiments using paper clips, cups and popsicle sticks.

"You'd be surprised by some of the things that teachers have been able to do," he said.

But Hitchcock said those substitutes come at a cost.

"There's something about the attitude of the student when he's sitting there with proper glassware and equipment as opposed to makeshift stuff," he said. "You're giving a lesson to the students that you're not really all that important, we have other things that are more important than you."

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