“Who better?” – Principal India Wilson on the challenge that drives her

“If we truly believe in student achievement, it will be evidenced in all that we say and do. When our students see that we believe in them, they will believe in themselves.” That’s the educational philosophy of India Wilson, principal of STEM Middle @ Baldwin Road Junior High School in the Reynoldsburg City Schools in central Ohio.

Wilson is the 2023 winner of the Ohio STEM Learning Network’s Excellence in STEM Leadership Award. The award recognizes “leaders who demonstrate a passion for the advancement of STEM education in Ohio that leads to positive student learning outcomes.” The STEM Excellence Awards are issued annually to teachers, leaders, and partnerships as part of the Ohio STEM Innovation Summit.

To find out more about Wilson’s school and its teaching methods, course offerings and community partners, we contacted her with a few questions:

Q: Tell us about your school and its mission and how your educational philosophy fits in with it.

India Wilson compressedA: At STEM Middle @ Baldwin Road (SMBR), students are engaged in transdisciplinary problem and project-based learning, a method that challenges students to develop mastery of grade level standards while developing real solutions to relevant problems observed locally and globally.

Through the lenses of environmental STEM (eSTEM), health sciences and social justice, all SMBR teachers and staff members are committed to advancing the philosophy and practice of STEM education through and with design cycle problem-solving, hands-on learning, career exploration and being “STEMmersed” in all things STEM.

SMBR is proud to offer innovative elective course selections such as Forensic Science, Robotics, Video Game Design, Computer Science, Medical Detectives, Sports Medicine, American Sign Language, Chinese, Spanish, Career Connections, Environmental Sustainability, Urban Gardening and Design CTE.

In addition to the general course studies, students have opportunities for enrichment by enrolling in any of the following courses: Integrated Math 1 and 2, English Language Arts 8 and 9 and African-American Literature.

The fine arts electives are an additional lens through which health sciences is explored, in the Yoga and Hip-Hop Fitness elective courses. Additionally, students at SMBR can also participate in Choir, Band and Orchestra classes.

Students at SMBR are evaluated via mastery-based grading and are often addressed as STEM Scholars, as they are inspired and empowered to be nothing less than exceptional.

The SMBR community is committed to an environment where we authentically seek to motivate, inspire, invest in and empower all STEM Scholars to imagine, question, design, excel and soar far beyond their wildest dreams in the world of eSTEM, health sciences, social justice and anywhere else they seek to either blaze a trail or leave a lasting fingerprint.

In other words, we support our students finding out who they are, and then rocking it out!

OSLN Excellence Awards accepting nominations until Feb. 5, 2024

Q: What is your background in education and how, in general, do you strive to be a STEM leader in your school?

A: Two life-changing events were catalysts to my becoming an educator.

In the early 1990s, my oldest daughter’s preschool teacher inquired as to my major (I was a full-time college student). I told her that my major was social work. She then asked me if I had ever considered being a teacher, to which I replied, “No.” I even further stated that it “wasn’t for me.”

She looked at me and questioned, “Who better? Who better than you to educate our own?” In all honesty, what she had asked had given me pause. However, I still believed that social work was my calling.

Three years later, while still an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to volunteer with my sorority at a local elementary school. During the school day we volunteered in a fourth-grade classroom, drilling and strengthening math skills. The culmination was a Math Bee, where prizes were awarded. The best prize, however, was the undeniable realization that my true calling was in education.

As it is said, “the rest is history.” Both experiences serve as the foundation to my commitment to serve the underserved, no matter the demographic. I am committed to ensuring that the student experience is the best of the best. In order to provide such an experience, the standards are high, and the corresponding exploration is vast.

Q: In your nomination application for the STEM award, which was written by your school’s assistant principal, Schyvonne Ross, she said that you have made “intentional and strategic efforts to open doors … for students of color, students with disabilities and girls.” How have you made that happen?

A: Intentionality is key. It is very similar to what I like to call “The Art of Lesson Planning.” All art is prefaced with vision, and in order for a school leader to ensure that we are opening doors for all of our students, there must first be a vision.

There is a difference between running a school and leading your school. When an administrator views the building as their own, a vision has been clearly communicated and action steps are in place to consistently see it to fruition.

You are not simply puppeteering the district’s vision and/or mission. Rather, you are actively exercising your commitment to closing the achievement gap and, more important, the belief gap. When the school leader authentically believes in students, intentional planning in regard to instruction, community partnerships, field experiences and on-campus experiences are well thought out, integrated seamlessly and implemented with fidelity.

Two examples of intentionality are our grade-level School Wide Book Reads and our Signature Events.

In the School Wide Book Read, each grade level has a first semester and a second semester novel, which is the basis for transdisciplinary Project-Based Learning (PrBL). We are intentional in our book selection, by ensuring that each book aligns with the lenses through which we explore STEM, as well as being literature where the students can see themselves in both the author and the characters. At SMBR, we know that our students “can’t be who they cannot see.”

When creating the calendar for the year, we are intentional in creating specific days for thematic planning across grade-level teams. This is planning time, separate from individual teacher planning. We also have on the calendar what we call “PBL Palooza” weeks. While PBL (Problem-Based Learning) and PrBL are the expected norm, these weeks further support the school’s mission to have time intentionally set aside on our calendar.

PBL Palooza weeks are times when we will see PrBL and PBL in action! This is generally separate from the School Wide Book Read. These are weeks where our students wear their lab coats (intentional creation of a mind-set), and we will see ongoing design cycle teaching and learning in a variety of ways.

Signature events:

  • STEM Service – A variety of community-based projects in service to the community.
  • STEM Goes Red – American Heart Association Fundraiser.
  • STEM Career Day – We are especially intentional in seeking guest speakers or experiences that perhaps our girls or students of color never imagined themselves as becoming.
  • Makers’ Market – Spring/Summer Oasis sale of student creations. Perfect opportunity for our “makers” to showcase their skills and talents.
  • STEMagine Me! – Check out who our students are Becoming! STEM Scholars are featured in a building-wide walking gallery, where they present who they are becoming, in reference to their career. Our scholars dress the part and share a presentation inclusive of the educational pathway, locations where this career is in high demand and salary ranges.
  • The STEM Café – Showcase of School Wide Book Read and academic projects. Students display the best of the best of all of their “Voice and Choice” projects. The grade level with the best presentation “takes home the gold.”
  • STEM Lab Coat Ceremony – Sixth-grade STEM induction. Our new sixth-graders are inducted into our school with a special lab coat ceremony and are “pinned” by their parents.
  • Eighth Grade Bridging Ceremony – Promotion program, where our eighth-graders literally cross a bridge and are greeted on the opposite side by the high school principals.

Q: Ross described the “three lenses in which we apply STEM: health sciences, environmental STEM and social justice.” Describe ways that these areas are fostered at your school.

A: This is fostered in a variety of ways. An example would be through our partnership with the local Black Physicians Network. This partnership allows SMBR to secure visits by men and women of color who are medical practitioners.

For example, Dr. Reversa Joseph is an African-American neurosurgeon. She has been a guest speaker at several career fairs. Dr. Laura Espy-Bell, who is the founder of the Black Physicians Network, is also an emergency room doctor. Annually, we can count on Dr. Espy-Bell and Dr. Maureen Letts-Joyner to speak at our STEM Goes Red event, educating our students about heart health.

As mentioned previously, our School Wide Book Reads are selected with intentionality. The Impossible Clue and Wink are both novels that align with our health sciences lens, in that we have a character with Alzheimer’s disease in one book and, in the other, a character with cancer. Each book has carefully been selected – the authors and characters are people of color, and the book brings awareness to a social justice concern or is related to eSTEM.

For example, The House that Lou Built allows our students to study the benefits of tiny houses that are also energy efficient. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind allows a similar exploration. As you have probably guessed, our Maker Space is where our students build actual tiny houses, wind turbines and more. Frankly, the Maker Space is an “extra” space, as traditionally the bulk of our students’ making and building take place right in the classroom.

When we are intentional with creating lesson plans that introduce and embrace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), we are seamlessly integrating social justice. Nevertheless, we are intentional with the integration of social justice as well. An example would be our nationally recognized work with Digital Promise. This work was led by assistant principal Ross and instructional coach Lisa Floyd-Jefferson.

A team of teachers is committed to Socratic Seminar training, with the focus and intention of integrating Socratic Seminars into PrBL. This technique has taught our students the art of having difficult discussions surrounding DEI in a diplomatic manner.

Q: Your school has several community partners. How have these partners worked to enrich the education of your students?

A: Here are examples:

  • Ballet Met – Our Yoga and Hip Hop Fitness instructors are provided by BalletMet (health sciences).
  • Center for Inclusive Innovation, Digital Promise – Socratic Seminars, which have been held at both the student and community levels (social justice).
  • Black Physicians Network – Ensuring that our students can see themselves in STEM (social justice and health sciences).
  • Abbott Future Well Kids Project – Partnership with Abbott Nutrition with our sixth grade. This is a teacher/partner collaboration on curriculum, with interactive modules (health sciences).
  • Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences – Our Electives teachers attend a workshop series that improves their craft. Additionally, a curriculum for our Urban Gardening and Environmental Sustainability electives are on the horizon (eSTEM and social justice).
  • Capital University – Our female scholars attend the Girls in Science Symposium (all lenses).
  • The Dream Center – An after-school based partnership, which meets the social-emotional learning (SEL) needs of our students (health sciences, social justice).
  • The Village Network – Clinical partnership meeting SEL needs (health sciences, social justice).
  • Southeast Counseling – Clinical partnership meeting SEL needs (health sciences, social justice).
  • The PAST Foundation – Providing PBL and PrBL professional development as well as providing STEM based after-school clubs for students (all lenses).
  • GEAR UP, Ohio – College preparation for both students and parents (social justice).
SMBR No. 1 compressed

Q: Your school was recently named a state of Ohio designated STEM school. What role did you play in gaining the redesignation, and what does it mean for your school?

A: As the instructional leader of SMBR, I led the journey to redesignation. My staff likes to joke about my “buzz words,” which we all have accepted as “The Baldwin Way”: “consistency,” “fidelity,” “non-negotiables” and, everyone’s favorite, “one band, one sound.”

The latter is a line from the movie Drumline, where a band enters what appears to be a hopeless competition. However, the mind-set is clarified, and the drum majors persevere. This journey and accomplishment were definitely a “one band, one sound” accomplishment. We established and nurtured a mind-set building-wide. Our teacher leaders, STEM Leadership Team, teachers and scholars all held purposeful roles in this process.

It all began with our self-reflection, having the hard conversations and deciding that this effort was one that we were all going into wholeheartedly. As Iyanla Vanzant would say, “We did the work; we owned it and we walked in it.”

It means that we are in the process of doing what we vowed that we would do, which is to write our own narrative. The work that has been accomplished by our SMBR family not only earned the redesignation but also has been evidenced in impressive growth on both the local and state standardized tests. Our attendance numbers are in the 90th percentile, and our discipline incidents are progressively shrinking. We are writing a story that states that design cycle teaching and learning is not a trend but indeed a movement!

Q: How do you foster professional development (PD) among your staff members?

A: We have a PD committee that annually meets and shares on behalf of the staff what our teachers are interested in learning more about. Additionally, I am huge on conversation. As a team, whether formally or informally, we talk about our “next.” With these conversations, we talk about tools, materials and professional development that is needed.

I then do my best to secure requested experiences for the staff. Also, I use the budget to support personal development. If teachers want to attend innovation and STEM conferences, I approve them and find a way to financially support their growth and development.

Q: What have your years of experience, and your students, taught you about education?

A: I have learned that the closing of achievement gaps is important. However, more important, I have learned that while we work toward closing achievement gaps, the larger gap that we must actively and with intention close is the belief gap.

Do I believe that children of color, of poverty, in at-risk homes … do I BELIEVE that my students cannot only achieve but surpass expectations? Do I believe that female students can be doctors and scientists? If we truly believe in student achievement, it will be evidenced in all that we say and do. When our students see that we believe in them, they will believe in themselves.

Q: What advice would you give fellow STEM educators in this post-pandemic time?

A: The keys to success are vision, intention, collaboration, belief and ACTION. We have to DO! If you want to see transdisciplinary instruction, provide the environment in which it can take place. Be intentional. In this process, negative “what-ifs” simply do not exist.

As the instructional leader of your building, you have a huge responsibility to lead the charge of success. Clarify and confirm instructional, climate and culture expectations. After which, you progress monitor with fidelity, providing purposeful feedback, support and coaching all along the way.

Just. Do. It.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about your job?

 A: I am going into my ninth year as a principal and, without question, this has been the best team of teachers yet! They are committed to “greater.” I love that about them.

Additionally, Reynoldsburg City Schools is a supportive district of central office leaders who are dedicated champions of scholarship. When I think “outside the box,” the deputy superintendent is right there with me, offering not only support but also ideas. When I have large ideas that seem impossible, our superintendent trusts my leadership; that’s huge! Our chief academic officer nurtures autonomy and provides support when I need it.

In an environment such as this, there are no barriers to radical growth for both students and teachers, and that is irreplaceable.

OSLN Excellence Awards accepting nominations until Feb. 5, 2024

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