Thursday, February 18, 2010

Engineering Here and Now

Anyone who visited Shamrock last Tuesday would have sensed something going on.

Student work was suddenly everywhere -- tongue-depressor log cabins adorning kindergarten windows; crayon drawings of the moon's phases
lining the third-grade corridor; wildlife dioramas filling media center shelves. In the front office, staff members stapled pictures to bulletin boards and arranged marshmallow-and-linguine towers in a glass case. The abundance, the attention to arrangement, the nervous energy that filled the halls could mean only one thing.

The superintendent was coming.

In commemoration of National Engineers Week, CMS superintendent Peter Gorman had scheduled his weekly press conference for Shamrock. The point: to highlight our success with the terrific "Engineering is Elementary" program (a far more satisfying situation than our last media "event," which chronicled Carolina Panthers taking students on a shopping spree at "Toys 'R Us.") The program has gone so well at Shamrock that its Boston-based creators have asked our teachers to pilot some of their new units.

The action picks up early Wednesday morning, when CMS people start streaming through the doors. While they arrange
chairs and cameras, teacher Beverly Griffin sets out magnets and electric circuits, and creates a miniature oil spill in a pebble-filled box.

Out in the front office, a group of fourth and fifth graders clad in bright white "Ambassador" shirts wait to escort the visitors down the spotless hall, and then to demonstrate their projects.

The press conference starts at 10 sharp. There is a lot to say. Dr. Gorman and his fellow presenters outline the virtues of "Engineering is Elementary." They talk about math and science
education, and about how the U.S. lags the world in this key arena (a depressingly common theme in most talk of educational programming these days). They laud the students at Davidson IB middle school, who have just won a national engineering competition. They describe improvements they hope to make to CMS's science and engineering programs in elementary, middle and high schools.

The waiting students listen patiently for a while, then pick books off the shelves behind them and begin to read.

My mind wanders as well. Everything the panelists have to say is true. Math and science are essential parts of education. Engineering is Elementary has been great for our school. It helps kids solve problems, do hands-on experiments, learn to work as teams -- and they love it. It's a marvelous example of Shamrock's academic revival.

But most of the students in the room will be leaving soon for middle school. None of them will go to Davidson IB, where 96 percent of the students are at grade level, and only 19 percent come from low-income families (we're not in the school's attendance zone). Instead, most of Shamrock's students will head to Eastway Middle, where only 52 percent of the students are at grade level and 87 percent come from low-income homes. Eastway has struggled for years, and nothing CMS has done has clicked the way things have at Shamrock. What will happen to our students when they leave us?

It isn't even clear that we're going to be able to keep what we have, let along build on it. As soon as the panelists finish talking, a TV reporter cuts quickly to the chase. Hands-on science is expensive, he notes. What kind of money will it take to expand CMS's offerings?

Dr. Gorman hesitates before replying. The afternoon stop on his calendar will be a budget workshop, where he will explain the district's plans to cut as much as $83 million out of next year's budget.

"Everything is under attack," he finally says.

And, indeed, it is. The potential cuts bite deep. If they go into effect, we'll lose more teachers and support staff. Class sizes will rise. We'll be lucky to keep our Engineering is Elementary funding, let alone finance any expansions.

These bigger worries make it hard to focus on the here-and-now, on what is happening this week, this year. The words and pictures covering the walls. The experiments waiting on the shelves. The patient students waiting for their chance to shine.

Yet there they stand, ready to go. The conference ends, and the cameras head their way. Confidently, cheerfully, they demonstrate oil-spill cleanup, electrical currents, using magnets to steer a floating block of wood. They do not look ahead, not yet.

Across the room, Dr. Gorman finishes answering questions about the budget. He has an 11:30 appointment. The wall clock shows 11:25. But the kids are waiting, and he steers toward them. Every face lights up -- including his -- as he starts asking questions.

Here and now. Here and now.