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Shifts in teaching methods help Hartselle elementary school earn STEM certification 

By Deangelo McDaniel  

For the Enquirer 

A Hartselle elementary school with the highest poverty rate in the district is changing how it delivers education and has earned AdvancED STEM certification. 

The change in instruction — which students and parents requested during a survey in 2018 — requires teachers at F.E. Burleson Elementary to reconsider the decades-old method of standing and talking to students. 

Principal Deborah Queen said the shift meant teaching students the how and why of information to go along with the facts. 

She said every lesson in the school has a science, technology, engineering and math component, and all of the 534 students from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade participate. 

It took F.E. Burleson almost two years to earn AdvancED STEM certification, which fewer than 20 schools in the state have, according to the Alabama Department of Education. Barkley Bridge Elementary earned the distinction in 2018, and Superintendent Dee Dee Jones said it’s her goal for Hartselle City to become an AdvancED STEMcertified district. 

“The needs of students are changing, and we’re having to move away from the traditional model,” she said. 

Myleigh Mallard is a thirdgrade student who has been at Burleson during the change. She was one of 13 students interviewed by the accrediting agency. 

“They wanted to know about my favorite subject and how teachers were teaching,” Mallard said. “We do a lot of stuff on our own, and it’s more fun because when we make mistakes, we help each other.” 

Assistant Principal Ross Lewis, who is on the school’s advisory team that visited other AdvancED STEM certified schools, said the 2018 survey was eye-opening. 

“Students told us they were tired of learning off worksheets,” he said, adding that parents expressed similar concerns. 

This is when Burleson added educational programs that require more independent thinking and planning and allow students to work out problems with little to no interference from teachers. 

“We infused STEM education in all areas of teaching,” science teacher Susan England said. 

She said student engagement and class participation increased when F.E. Burleson shifted from handing out worksheets. 

Making the shift, however, did not guarantee the school would receive AdvancED STEM certification. 

AdvancED, which granted the certification, is a group of accrediting agencies that merged in 2006 and visits school sites that want evaluations to determine if they are complying with the nonprofit organization’s STEM guidelines. 

While not required for accreditation, the certification is an endorsement that the school has in place programs that prepare students for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. 

The difference in being “just a regular elementary school” and following the requirements for AdvancED STEM certification is students are learning more than the four cores of reading, writing, math and social studies, Jones said. 

“This is why I want Hartselle to have this as a district,” she said. 

Representatives made several announced and unannounced visits to F.E. Burleson over an 18-month period and evaluated several indicators, such as digital learning, student expectations and equitable learning. 

Queen said the detailed report explaining why Burleson became an AdvancED STEMcertified school should be available soon.