The Payson Unified School District this fall will launch an innovative new program to help students explore science and technology careers in fields like engineering.
The district hopes to find 24 freshmen to enroll in the first of a four-year sequence of courses in which students will tackle a succession of projects intended to teach problem-solving skills and things like design, computer programming and building circuits.
“Students will have the opportunity to learn cutting-edge technology, design and build projects and experience college-level work,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.
“This is a win for students, their families and the community, as Arizona needs highly skilled workers for high-tech jobs.”
An impressive 27 students have already signed up to take the course in the fall, according to Michele Nelson, one of the parents who helped organize the effort through the Payson Area Association for Gifted and Talented (PAAGT).
The combination of layoffs and deep cuts in state support for vocational education had endangered the program, until the district found a way to launch the effort on its own without any added budget cost.
The quest by a PAAGT headed by Laurel Wala to convince the district to offer more creative and challenging classes triggered the program.
The parents’ group originally wanted to launch a science and technology charter school, but ultimately decided to shift to support for this core of advanced science and technology classes to hopefully create a “school within a school.”
The new engineering and technology track will use a detailed, four-year curriculum in science and technology developed by Project Lead the Way (PLTW) and STEM, a national business coalition that aims to bolster science education nationally.
Project Lead the Way has helped provide such science courses in 4,000 schools nationwide, including several Valley schools.
Rim Country Middle School technology teacher Marlene Armstrong will teach the single class of freshmen that will launch the ultimate four-year program.
She already has a technical education certificate in Innovative Programs and was one of two teachers nationally to get a perfect score on a pre-test for the program.
She will add the freshman class to her class load next year and may end up moving over to the high school as the program develops, said O’Brien.
Ultimately, the program will get supplemental funding through the state’s system for funding vocational and technical education. That money will provide funds for teacher training, equipment, curriculum materials and other extras for the students.
Unfortunately, the state Legislature this year banned extra state funding for vocational and technical classes for freshmen, which means the district will have to launch the program with just regular instructional money.
The state a decade ago set up a statewide vocational and career education program with its own tax base and regional districts that funneled money to local school districts. Payson and 10 other districts get their vocational funding through the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology (NAVIT). The program already supports popular Payson programs in agricultural sciences, automotive, culinary arts, construction technology, education professions, marketing and information technology.
However, this year the Legislature cut vocational funding. Normally, the system increases funding by 25 percent for each student in the program — which works out to roughly $800 per student, per year, on top of the $3,400 per-student base rate.
As a result of the cuts, NAVIT recently notified districts that it will have to reduce its staffing by about a third — from 6.5 positions to just 4.
The state cutbacks will cost Payson about $130,000 in vocational funding next year. However, Payson was using its roughly $450,000 in vocational funding mostly for supplies, field trips and capital improvements — like the new agricultural building.
The district wasn’t using NAVIT funds for teacher salaries, so will suffer far less devastating cuts in vocational programs than many other districts, said O’Brien.
The superintendent said things fell happily into place to allow the launch of the engineering track in the deep shadow of the state’s budget cuts and the district’s own teacher layoffs.
“I was looking at it all wondering ‘how are we going to manage this?’ The big question mark was personnel, then we had the double whammy of the Legislature saying ‘we’re not going to fund freshmen.’ This program is not terribly flexible — so we couldn’t just start with sophomores,” said O’Brien.
But as the district and the parents’ group brainstormed, they discovered Armstrong had unique credentials to take on the program.
Moreover, parent surveys convinced the group that the district didn’t have enough students interested in attending a separate science charter school to make that idea viable.
The core of parents with students likely to be interested said their children didn’t want to miss out on all the electives, socializing and extracurricular activities offered by the high school.
So the engineering track emerged as a building block for an innovative set of classes for students interested in science and technology careers, especially when combined with other NAVIT-funded classes in computer programming and a building trades class stressing things like solar cells and energy-efficient design.
Moreover, if the district can build a core of parents and students it can in the future add class sequences in things like sustainability and computer programming with an emphasis on video games.
The plan calls for a 24-student limit on enrollment, which early enrollment may have already exceeded. The class depends on students building things — starting perhaps with computer-controlled cars on a Lego racetrack, but advancing to robots that can roll around the room to perform simple tasks.
As a result, the classroom has to have enough room for students to work on projects in groups.
However, the district could also offer two sections if enough students sign up and Armstrong can juggle her schedule that now includes technology and computer programming classes at the middle school.
O’Brien predicted the class will attract many creative students who thrive with different approaches to learning.
“You never know where a kid’s talents lie. This isn’t engineering 101 — it’s to expose kids to the fundamentals of engineering through hands-on discovery and work.
“The rigor behind the program is excellent. But you don’t have to be gifted to want to be in the program. I think a lot of the gifted kids will thrive in that environment, but a lot of kids have aptitudes we don’t even know about — when it comes to building things they have an incredible ability to make things work.”