It’s full steam ahead as Discovery STEM Academy, (DSA), sets an open course for exploration, collaboration and success. The new school, under the direction of principal Christine Pilger, was established in the Southeast area of Newport News and has refurbished the standard courses of study, upending the traditional ways to teach and learn.
“Discovery STEM Academy, in partnership with the community, will foster an environment of high expectations and knowledge creation to empower critical thinkers, problem solvers and life-long learners through a hands-on, integrated curriculum facilitated through the STEM design process,” states the school’s mission.
In seeing the academy at work, the rigor of this mission statement yields a vibrancy of engaged students nurtured by caring and dedicated staff in an atmosphere of kindness, teamwork and high academic achievement. Says Pilger of her 619 DSA students, “They all have a love for learning, so making it engaging, interesting and fun is important, because that’s what hooks them.”
STEM focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. DSA integrates STEM design processes in all its classes, including social studies and reading. The academy has the same standards of learning as any school in Virginia, but its curriculum digs deeper and offers learning experiences that are more relevant for its students.
“We have a specialized curriculum where we launch and land every unit, and there’s always a challenge involved and a problem to solve that’s usually relevant to the community,” Pilger says. “Throughout the unit, the students know what to look for so all the integrated content areas help solve the problem. We don’t necessarily focus on the answer but on the process it took to get there.”
For example, an ocean life problem for fifth graders in their science unit would be solved by using lessons also learned in social studies, reading and math classes. Likewise, in math, all grade levels participate in “Math Talk” during the day, where a math problem is posted and students share the processes and strategies used to get the answer.
This integrated lesson approach often takes longer to complete than similar units at other schools, but Pilger and her staff maintain the pace needed to meet established academic assessments and benchmarks. The staff of approximately 100 includes 40 teachers, interventionists, resource staff teachers, assistants for special education classes, a custodial team and a cafeteria staff that Pilger states are all “phenomenal.”
Pilger is grateful to Newport News Public Schools (NNPS) for its support of DSA and for Dr. Ashby Kilgore, former superintendent, and Brian Nichols, chief academic officer, who gave her the opportunity to work with this great team of educators, support personnel and students. She also expresses appreciation for Tami Byron, STEM instructional supervisor, who has worked with her on curriculum, providing professional development for her teachers. And Pilger is pleased to be able to work with Dr. George Parker, current NNPS superintendent. “All this support has been amazing!” she says.
DSA opened nearly three years ago. Its kindergarten through second-grade students are children who live within the school’s transportation zone. The school also has a large special needs population. Third- through fifth-grade students compose the magnet program. DSA second graders who apply for the magnet program for third grade can continue to attend if they live within the school districts’ transportation zone. DSA students promoted from third and fourth grade may also remain in the magnet program through fifth grade. Students attending other elementary schools in the Newport News school district can apply for any remaining slots and are selected by lottery. The school can accommodate approximately 850 students.
The school has a strong youth development program which focuses on student leadership across all grade levels. First graders run the school-wide recycling program and train their kindergarten replacements to manage the next year. Second graders serve as newscasters, producing the school’s morning show that is taped weekly. Third graders run the internal postal system, where every classroom has an address for mail to be sent. Parents can also send deliveries to their kids through the mail.
The fourth graders serve as student ambassadors, hosting school tours with a DSA adult for visitors who have included city council members, realty groups and school representatives both locally and from out of state. Fifth graders have internships throughout the year with different staff members to learn about jobs within the school and the kind of education people went through to get their current jobs.
Pilger, who attended Newport News city schools for the majority of her upbringing, is awed and thankful to be part of DSA. “This is a great place. Our family engagement has gone up, our attendance has increased, discipline problems are declining. We do a lot of evening and weekend events to engage our families. They’re not all academic. Some of them are just for fun to make friends and build relationships.”
As Pilger and the faculty and staff prepare for their first group of fifth graders to go to middle school, the thought of them leaving is bittersweet. “I want them to go to one of our magnets that continues the STEM pipeline. Crittenden and Booker T. have amazing programs, and our kids are perfectly capable of continuing,” Pilger says. “We’re going to have to visit some middle schoolers to see how they’re doing. We are such a family here.”
Pilger continues, “Our kids are ready. Give them the tools, show them how to use them, and they can figure it out. It’s amazing what they can do.”
The proof is in the progress. These students display a confidence and adventurousness that press them forward. Anyone who steps into Discovery STEM Academy not only sees future leaders of tomorrow, but also observes current leaders of today setting their own courses for continued success.