Institute helps principal build STEM culture, 2019 cohort deadline extended

Many STEM school administrators might want a fresh approach to leading their school but aren’t sure where to turn. It’s difficult to find a fellow leaders to talk with and share ideas.

The Innovative Leaders Institute is accepting applications now. Apply here.

That’s where the Innovative Leaders Institute comes in. The institute is a specialized training program where leaders of innovative schools can learn from veteran STEM principals. The application deadline has just been extended through March 25 for the 2019 Ohio cohort of the Innovative Leaders Institute. (Learn more and apply here.) A recent participant in the institute, Kathryn E. Francis, principal of Orchard STEM School (PK-8) in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, shares her experience:

Q: Tell us about your background in education and your current position as principal of Orchard STEM School in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. What is the educational philosophy and mission of your school?

A: I have been the principal at Orchard STEM School for five years and employed in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District for 10 years. I got my bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University and became an intervention specialist for students with mild to moderate learning disabilities. I did this for three years and then transferred to a high school where I worked as an intervention specialist for students with emotional disturbances.

kathryn francis principal orchard stem school cleveland metropolitan school districtDuring this same time, I completed a master’s degree at Baldwin Wallace University. After five years of teaching, I switched paths into leadership and became a principal in the district.

Orchard’s mission is to nurture scholars to become lifelong learners who provide solutions to the many needs of a global society through scientific reasoning, innovation and leadership. Our vision is to transform teaching and learning through technology integration and providing the highest quality education experience that ensures creative and inventive thinking with a STEM focus in student centered classrooms.

The expectation for teaching is an inquiry based model where students are the leaders of the own learning. There is evidence of student voice in choice daily in what content is learned and how students demonstrate their learning. In many cases, students are on individualized learning pathways through our 1:1 technology program.

Q: When and why did you decide to participate in the Innovative Leaders Institute?
A: I decided to participate in the Innovative Leaders Institute this past school year. We had become a STEM designated school in April 2018, and I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to learn about other STEM schools and gather ideas that we could implement in my own building.

I find it difficult to find thought partners because I am one of only two true STEM schools in my district. I also often wonder what is happening in other STEM schools. I like to use this information as a comparison point. (Read our interviews with other graduates of the Innovative Leaders Institute)

Q: Describe in general what went on during sessions of the institute. How often and where did you meet, and, in general, who were your “classmates?”

A: We met about five times a year in different school settings throughout the state. Classmates were other teachers and principals of schools that were STEM or were interested in becoming STEM schools.

In this particular cohort, many of the schools were first year in STEM designation through the state.

Q: What were your big takeaways from the institute? Were you inspired by what you learned? Would you recommend it to others?

A: I mostly enjoyed the small pieces of information and strategies that I could use or consider using in my building. For example I have initiated a partnership with a local university for student teaching so that I can gather more professional development time for my teachers to create professional learning communities. Such half-day chunks of time can be used to support STEM design in classrooms.

I got this idea from models of professional learning communities that other schools were using. I also learned a lot about mastery and criterion-based learning. Finally I made changes to how students present their learning and how we display learning in the building. These changes were all inspired by the great work happening in other schools.

I would recommend the Ohio STEM Learning Network to others as I believe in the chance to collaborate around a common theme. It was eye opening and helpful to me as a leader and significantly impacted my building and the work within it as well.

Q: Did participation in the institute change your leadership approach? What have you learned at the institute that you would like to pass on to other school leaders?

A: Participation in the institute did not necessarily change my leadership approach, as I was already in favor of a servant leadership method with large amounts of support and autonomy for teachers.

However, I did learn new strategies of building a culture of STEM with my staff and found ways to provide better and more meaningful professional development opportunities to my staff.

I would like to assist other school leaders interested in taking this approach and sharing some of the best practices that I have seen and even implemented in my own building.

Q: Have you made any changes at your school that were influenced by what you picked up at the institute?

A: At the school level, we have adopted a new design process that is used in all classrooms. We also created a principal’s Golden Choice Award in our trophy case where we display our best work each month and showcase different design challenges.

We have started as a staff to discuss different ways of collaborating through lesson planning and backward design as well as assessing student understanding through mastery based learning.

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