CEISMC director Lizanne Destefano has a career of experience working in turnaround schools. In early 2015, Destefano knew it was important to launch a project that could connect Georgia Tech to Atlanta Public Schools. Around the same time, APS superintendent Meria Carstarphen was championing a massive revitalization effort that would close and merge multiple schools on the Westside. This Westside Turnaround Plan paved the way for a new K-8 STEM school, M. R. Hollis Innovation Academy. Hollis, with community input, chose to pilot a STEM signature program and the new school’s site was just two miles from Georgia Tech; CEISMC and Hollis made a perfect match. Hollis’ STEM goals align with CEISMC’s mission to “[enhance] PreK-12 and postsecondary STEM education by drawing upon the expertise and scholarly contributions of the Georgia Tech community”. The Hollis doors hadn’t yet opened before the partnership took hold, providing an opportunity for unparalleled engagement. From the start, CEISMC staff collaborated with Hollis school leadership to lay the groundwork for a cutting-edge STEM curriculum.
While the formal partnership developed at meetings with educational stakeholders in Atlanta, the real story of the first year is written with the students. The summer before Hollis’ first year, CEISMC staff ran a few projects at a summer camp with its future students. Destefano recalls that the kids had “big gaps in terms of reading and math” and “had not had very much experience in terms of hands-on STEM activities”. Students struggled to stay on task and follow along with the programming. Fast forward to now, where the rising sixth graders, soon to be Hollis’ first middle school class, just completed Georgia Tech Summer Bridge: a two-week camp where they programmed their own robots that had backstories tied to an integrated science, math, and language arts curriculum. The students excelled in their activities, some strictly academic and others focused on enrichment, during their time on Tech’s campus.
What happened over the course of one year? A lot. Enter CEISMC’s Associate Director of School and Community Engagement, Dr. Tamara Pearson. Dr. Pearson splits her time between Hollis and the CEISMC office, drawing on her extensive background teaching math and acting as an instructional coach to inform innovative professional development programs for STEM. She cites a principle that characterizes her work: “to affect the most kids, you have to teach teachers.”
Teacher education has been a priority in Hollis’ first year. Professional development has long been associated with one-time events that often don’t stick with teachers. High impact development should feel translatable, so that teachers see how it applies in their classroom. For this reason, the best teacher professional development is not one size fits all. To connect to
teachers, CEISMC staff spent hours co-teaching in Hollis classrooms each school week. When asked about the need for and impact of sustained partnership, Dr. Pearson explained that “These one day PDs [professional development], they just don't make a difference, they don't change practice, they don't increase student achievement... in the long run you have to actually follow it back into the classroom in order for it to make a difference. And most professional development doesn’t do that. That’s why Hollis is so special... We're in there every single day, building relationships with the teachers, building relationships with families, building relationships with the kids.”
The initial steps to bring STEM to the classroom were part of a careful scaffolding. The basic outline was to first, work with the STEM teachers for each grade to build their skillsets and expand their library of possible classroom activities. Then, in the upcoming year, these same STEM teachers will take what they’ve learned in a year of co-teaching and intense professional development with CEISMC, and bring it to the homeroom teachers in each grade, who cover all subjects. This way, students can move toward accessing STEM as a cross-curricular skill.
Next year, computer science will be the focus for Hollis middle school students. Hollis will emphasize coding in the 6th-8th grade curriculum, teaching the students SCRATCH. All Hollis students have exposure to robotics in elementary school, giving them a natural lead into the language. The goal is to send all Hollis students to high school already equipped with coding skills, providing them a head start on deeper studies in computer science. The choice to focus on coding follows Hollis’ plan to integrate STEM into all academic pursuits. STEM will start to appear outside of weekly labs next year as part of a larger effort to chip away at the barrier between science and math skillsets and classes that do not traditionally include STEM content.
Dr. Pearson cites incredible change throughout the year that demonstrates how the school administration, partners, faculty, and students have grown together. Teachers have shifted from individualized use of technology to collaborative group work. STEM teachers now take the lead on creating their own new projects for students. Students have become enthusiastic about STEM - eager to attend weekly labs, and dedicating time outside of school to programs like Hollis Hackers.
The success of the first year provides a platform for big plans in Year Two. Hollis’ first year of middle school is approaching quickly. Starting this Fall, Hollis will have its first class of sixth graders. To prepare these students for the transition to middle school, CEISMC hosted the aforementioned Summer Bridge program at Georgia Tech. The programming was academically-focused, but with time built in for field trips and swimming. The students worked with Hollis teachers, making their summer studies more meaningful and directly relatable to what they do during the school year.
Much of this success can be attributed to the active and respected leadership role that CEISMC has had in Hollis from day one. CEISMC staff are involved in all meetings of the school administration. They sit alongside other educational stakeholders like families, community members, faculty, and administration. This level of engagement has helped match CEISMC support to Hollis’ specific goals and needs.
From a year of non-stop strategization and myriad challenges, Hollis Innovation Academy emerged as a school on the rise. The school’s second year brings with it a new set of ambitions. Ambitions that both Georgia Tech and Hollis will embrace with the same energy from the year past, with the lessons learned in tow.