NEW BRITAIN - In an ongoing effort to improve teaching and learning in the New Britain School District, elementary and middle school students in the city will have an increased focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics this upcoming school year.
The first day of school is Thursday.
The school district has been involved in a redesign for much of the last few months, overhauling the curriculum and schedule format for the upcoming school year. The changes, branded an “enrichment curriculum,” puts a big focus on STEAM - science, technology, engineering arts and mathematics - for students in elementary school and middle school.
“It’s always about improving teaching and learning,” Superintendent of Schools Nancy Sarra said. “We have recreated an infrastructure to better support the learners of today.”
The need for a redesign
If you ask administrators, the need for a redesign is all in the numbers. In its last meeting, the Board of Education received a presentation from Assistant Chief Talent Officer Nicole Sanders detailing data, goals and expectations from the last school year. The presentation showed that New Britain students still fall behind others in the state when it comes to achievement.
“Thus the redesign,” Sanders said a few times during the data presentation.
Sarra said the district is pursuing a new approach to educating students using 21st century methods. Children simply don’t learn the way they used to, Sarra said.
“We are engineering innovation,” Sarra said. “We are modeling for our students how we can change what is to get a better and different result.”
The superintendent said she recently attended an educational conference in Orlando where the speaker, a video game player, described the how children learn and interact with modern technology. This is something the school district’s community and business partners are saying, too. Technology has contributed to a shift in how people learn and what career opportunities are available to them.
“They have to interact with information more than our generation did,” Sarra said.
Changes to the school day
Elementary school students will have one, three-hour block of STEAM time a week. During this block, students will be allowed to pick projects to work on, some utilizing the new “maker spaces” in the schools.
Every elementary school in the city will have a designated maker space this year. These spaces will allow students to solve problems hands-on, whether that means building or designing something.
“Back in 1970, when I was downstairs in my father’s workshop, he taught me what to do with a hammer and a nail, he taught me how to build. He gave me space to create. A maker space is a space to create,” Sarra said of the new spaces.
Middle school students will have a few more options in their electives, in addition to STEAM time. All students will get time learning about information technology (IT) in addition to optional electives such as culinary and manufacturing.
“At our secondary level, we wanted to start getting them the mindset of what career pathways could be. We’ve opened up their elective experiences at the middle school,” Sarra said.
Upperclassmen at New Britain High School will have a schedule similar to those in years past, but ninth- and tenth-graders will have some changes to their schedules. Freshmen and sophomores will have four core teachers four days of the week - math, science, English language arts and social studies. On the fifth day of the week, students will have a day of electives like engineering, career technology, and more.
Those in the private sector agree with the need for STEM learning. In July, Stanley Black & Decker assisted the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford in opening an all new Engineering Lab. The space gives visitors hands-on experience with pulleys, circuits and other types of mechanical and electrical engineering.
“STEM-based learning is more important than ever, and it is great to see the New Britain school system focusing so heavily on taking the right steps to prepare students for the jobs of the future,” said Tim Perra, Stanley’s vice president of public affairs.
Sarra acknowledged that school districts all around the country are turning their focus on STEM-based education.
“This isn’t a New Britain thing, this is across our nation. We want to build an economy that has young men and women who are able to be flexible and adaptable,” Sarra said. “They have to have problem-solving skills. They have to be able to communicate well, orally and in writing. All of these things can’t happen in the old-factory model of ‘teachers talking - students listening.’”
Perra shared a similar sentiment.
“Technology is changing the world at an incredible pace, and the types of enhancements that the New Britain school system is implementing now will help ensure that our local students today are ready to become our workforce tomorrow,” Perra said. “As a company we have a commitment to helping to prepare the workforce of the future, while at the same time ensuring that our current workforce has the skills and abilities to adapt to the changing nature of work on the manufacturing floor.”
Skyler Frazer can be reached at 860-801-5087 or by email at email@example.com.
TRANSPARENCY SIDE BAR
In May, The Herald reported that more than 90 teachers were being involuntarily transferred within the district, at least half of whom were moved to better align with the new curriculum’s focus. This caused much stress and discussion between parents, teachers and students concerned about how this school year will look like.
To increase transparency and nullify any feelings of concern, Sarra has been hosting cross-union meeting biweekly with the head of the teachers’ union, administrators’ union and her own cabinet. Teachers who have concerns can submit questions before these meetings to be answered.
Sarra has also created a superintendent-parent cabinet which will meet once a month. Administrators at each school have been reaching out to parents interested in being part of this group.
“We’re modeling problem solving. We had a problem: parents felt that they didn’t know enough. Well now we’re going to make sure that they have a voice at the table and they can help shape the direction of the model,” Sarra said.