Monday, April 21, 2008

Barrett Will Miss NASA Conferences

This year marks the final year of Barrett's NASA Explorer School status. The program sponsored attendance for five teachers at professional-development conferences per year.

Half the students in Todd Easley’s fourth-grade class hold flashlights a foot above their desks. The bulbs make small circles of light on the graph paper beneath. The rest of the children, partners to the first half, trace the outlines of each light spill, trying not to block the light with their hands as they draw.

Then the light-wielders angle the flashlights, still a foot from the desks, and the spill is an oval that their partners trace. They count the number of graph squares contained within the shapes.

Mr. Easley is teaching the seasons.

Fourth-grade students in Todd Easley's class use flashlights and graph paper to learn the science behind the seasons. (Click to enlarge the image.)

“Has the flashlight changed?” Mr. Easley asks the class, which he calls “Fourth Grade” when he wants their attention. The light has not changed. And he asks them if the flashlight’s distance from the paper has changed. Again, it has not. But the angle has changed.

The light that shines perpendicularly is more concentrated than the light that hits at an angle, Mr. Easley explains to his class on the second floor of K.W. Barrett Elementary School. When light is concentrated, when it is hitting perpendicular to the surface, as the sun’s light does at the equator, it produces more heat in that area.

The idea to use the flashlights and graph paper came from a conference Mr. Easley attended at Yellowstone National Park this winter. NASA paid for Mr. Easley’s trip, as part of the NASA Explorer School program, aimed to help schools teach math and science. This school year, Barrett finishes its three-year stint in the program.

As part of the program, NASA grants schools $17,500 over three years to purchase technology. That money is appreciated, but what educators said they will really miss are the conferences.

Five teachers each year to go to conferences, paid in full by NASA. Barrett’s only cost for those conferences over three years has been the cost per day, about $100, they have had to pay for the substitute teachers, said Principal Terry Bratt.

As part of a discussion about how the angle of sunlight affects the seasons, Barrett fourth-grade teacher Todd Easley shows student work on a document camera. (Click to enlarge the image.)

“I think what’s been great is the faculty development,” said Laurie Sullivan, a teaching specialist with Project Discovery, a special county-funded program that supports science instruction at the school.

Under the budget rules for Arlington Public Schools, elementary schools are awarded $9.15 per projected student to be used for faculty professional development. The projected number is determined in March of the previous school year, according to APS. The number is not adjusted once the system tallies the actual student count.

“Our projections are typically within 1.5 percent of total so it does not result in a significant change for schools in terms of budgeted amounts,” wrote Frank Bellavia in an email. He is a public relations specialist with APS.

Barrett was projected to have 405 students in March 2007. At the $9.15 level, the professional development funding is $3705.75. However, this school year Barrett has 445 students, nearly a 10 percent, or $366, difference for Barrett’s professional development budget. In an email, the Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Mark Johnston gave a number of reasons any school might have a large difference between the projected and actual number of students, including an unexpected influx of families, or a change in neighborhood housing. As well, schools such as Barrett that are below 95 percent capacity can receive a high number of transfer students, Mr. Johnston wrote.

Mrs. Bratt said, “That [the $366] could be two registrations at a conference, for example.”

“When you get down to it, $3,000 is hardly any money at all," she said.

With the cost of conference fees, airfare and hotel, one teacher might use $1,000 for a single conference. That would mean only three of Barrett’s 60 teachers would be able to take advantage of that money in a given year.

For fall 2008, Barrett is projected at 471 students, according to the 2009 budget approved by the school board last week.

"This generates approximately $4,300,” Mr. Johnston wrote. “In addition, Barrett receives a little over $3800 in exemplary project funds."

Money for exemplary projects, such as Barrett's "Project Interaction” (part of the communications arts curriculum), can be put toward faculty development, according to APS materials.

So Barrett teachers look to local conferences, and “We buy books,” professional books, to supplement professional development, Mrs. Bratt said. That is where some of the exemplary project money goes, she said.

As well, Barrett Elementary has teamed with other schools to bring in a speaker to conduct an in-house conference. One cooperative effort brought three schools and about 50 or 60 teachers together in 2001, she said. Although she called it a “worthwhile experience,” cooperation like that is difficult because the needs at each school can be a little different.

In the past Barrett has brought in noted authors Ralph Fletcher and Margaret McKeown. Fees for top-flight speakers, if they even have room in their schedules, can run $3,000 a day, Mrs. Bratt said.

“They all cost bucks,” she said. “Nobody’s cheap.”

For all those reasons, the money that NASA provided for conferences was significant. And it was not easy to get.

Ms. Sullivan and Mrs. Bratt were part of the team that wrote the proposal to become a NASA school.

“I wrote that on my own time, at home,” Ms. Sullivan said.

And there is no real system in place to help the teachers write the grants, both she and Mrs. Bratt said.

The money is not easy to keep, either. NASA requires quite a bit of paper work such as receipts, surveys, and efolios from conference participants.

“They’re like one of our model schools. They’ve taken advantage of all we’ve had to offer,” said Rudo Kashiri. She is NASA’s Explorer School coordinator for the Langley region which includes Virginia.

Ms. Kashiri said that staff at Barrett has turned paperwork and surveys in on time, and that they have been actively searching for other money now that the NASA grant is ending.

Barrett still has thousands of dollars left to spend from the NASA Explorer School grant, but that money goes toward technological equipment, not professional development. They received $10,000 in the first year, $5,000 the second and are expecting another $2,500. Of that, the fiscal 2009 budget shows that they spent $6,581 during the 2006-07 school year. Neither Mrs. Bratt nor Ms. Sullivan was sure what if any more money has been spent.

“We’re going to have a chunk of change to decide where we want to go,” Ms. Sullivan said.

They are looking to purchase a smartboard and three document cameras. Smartboards are an interactive projection screens that can operate a connected computer by touching the screen. Document cameras are high-tech, overhead projectors that can project anything on the desktop onto a screen at the front of the class. The style being considered look a little bit like clip-on lights.

Still, it is the money for conferences that they say they will miss.

In an interview, Mr. Easley admitted that he would not have applied for the conference at Yellowstone, limited to 24 teachers in fourth- to ninth-grades, if it had not been for Ms. Sullivan’s insistence. In only his second year at the school (he used to teach in Colorado), Mr. Easley said he saw why Ms. Sullivan was Virginia state teacher of the year in 2004. “She’s motivated,” he said.

None of the Barrett teachers who applied for last year’s openings made it in, Ms. Sullivan said.

In the past two years, Ms. Sullivan, who was county teacher of the year in 2003, has won two grants from Toyota, one for the student-produced podcasting program “Discovery Through a Scientific Lens,” and another to study whooping cranes.

The Virginia Science Museum visited Barrett in February thanks to a $1,300 grant they awarded to the school. The remaining $200 was spent from Project Discovery’s budget, Ms. Sullivan said.

She views her job as that of helping the teachers get what they need to teach science, and admitted that she has only a little flexible time to pursue various grants. She said other teachers do not have the time, either.

“We all have ideas, but it takes time to write them.”

Students in Mr. Easley's class use a ruler to keep the flashlight one foot from the graph paper. (Click to enlarge the image.)

Related sites…
  • School Board Approves 2009 Budget
  • APS Fiscal Year 2009 and 2008 budgets (pdf documents)
  • NASA Explorer School Program
  • Barrett's Project Discovery
  • Discovery Through a Scientific Lens podcast
  • Teacher Workshops at Yellowstone
  • Other Barrett-related stories at the HeraldTrib

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