Portraits of success: Lancaster school district helps students realize STEM success

Trevor Johnson and teacherWhen you ask Trevor Johnson what he wants to be when he grows up, the answer is simple:

A “world-changer.”

How will he change the world? Through electrical engineering, he says. The soon-to-graduate senior at Lancaster High School near Dallas fell in love with math in 5th grade – in a crowded elementary cafeteria-turned-auditorium, during a Math Olympiad competition.

“It was really special,” Trevor said. “I was pretty much in love with math and ended up placing. It made me feel like my hard work paid off.”

Seven years after that Math Olympiad, Trevor has participated in engineering club, robotics, field trips to the Perot Museum and a trip to Houston for a National Society of Black Engineers event. He’s taken dual-credit courses through a local community college and has been accepted at nine universities, with three scholarship offers.

To Trevor, the narrative of his middle school and high school experience is business-as-usual. But for Lancaster Independent School District (ISD) – a low socio-economic, high-minority population district – stories like Trevor’s represent a profound transformation.

“We’ve had to shift the mindset of what school is,” said Kyndra Johnson, Lancaster ISD director of STEM and Curriculum Innovation. “We have a new generation of students that requires us to prepare differently and deliver instruction in a different way.”

Starting in 2012, Lancaster ISD has implemented an innovative STEM District model that focuses on developing teachers, raising academic standards, preparing students for success in college and careers, and introducing more black, Hispanic and female students to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, in which they are traditionally underrepresented. The model brought together proven programs from other areas of Texas into one focused effort. It is designed to be replicable throughout the state.

Ninety-five percent of students in Lancaster ISD are black or Hispanic, and 90 percent are on free or reduced lunch programs based on family income. When the “STEM for all” district-wide initiative began, the district’s college and career readiness scores were among the lowest in the state of Texas.

Excellent teachers and higher expectations are two cornerstones of the approach, along with ensuring students have a strong foundation in math and science, and exposing them to engineering careers, Kyndra said. Community support is also critical.

“When (students are) here with us, we have a responsibility…to provide them with the best education and an environment that is safe,” she said. “They feel like they’re cared for, but they’re also going to be pushed and challenged.”

Exposure to engineering careers

Trevor JohnsonFor Trevor, learning about the variety of engineering careers began in eighth grade. His eyes light up when he talks about robotics and the engineering club. Activities like the trip to Houston for the National Society of Black Engineers event made him feel encouraged and uplifted, he said.

Trevor credits his teacher and mentor, Charles Richardson, with challenging him inside the classroom and supporting him outside the classroom, including influencing him to attend STEM summer camps.

Like other Lancaster teachers who set high standards for their students, Charles said he’s proud of Trevor.

“You can be exposed to STEM, but if you don’t apply yourself, it won’t happen,” he said. “As we like to say, STEM also stands for ‘Striving To Empower Minds.’ It has a lot to do with the exposure and experiences our students are afforded at an early age. When something becomes a habit, you’re developing that skill, talent or learning.”

Charles, a former engineer who turned to teaching, was recognized as a recipient of the Texas Instruments Foundation Innovations in STEM Teaching Award in 2016.

Great expectations

Trevor describes himself as ambitious, practical, creative, skillful and tenacious – qualities that will help him succeed at whichever university he chooses.

“We try to teach students to be flexible and adaptable, how to weather circumstances. That’s the grit we know they’ll need in the real world, their defense for those barriers that come up,” Kyndra said.

“We realize the demographics in the community pose various challenges and barriers, but we also recognize how the district and the community have rallied together to make sure that regardless of those situations or issues outside of school, when they’re with us, we act like a family and work like a team,” she said.

Kyndra said parental and community support has been critical to the efforts. She also credits the support of Educate Texas and the TI Foundation with helping accelerate the district’s efforts to build capacity in teachers, provide students more exposure to STEM, and enhance advanced academics in STEM, beginning in pre-K.

“It’s not to say we couldn’t have done it, but we would have taken longer to kick these changes into gear,” she said.

Lancaster ISD’s progress

Trevor JohnsonFive years ago, Trevor’s odds of success preparing for college or an engineering career would have been much slimmer based on the school district’s demographics and performance.

The district, which has one high school in a community of about 36,000 people, has come a long way in a short time.

Dr. Michael D. McFarland, Lancaster ISD superintendent, cites three keys to success that have driven the district’s transformation:

  • A “can do” culture in which every child wants to be and can be successful.
  • Professional development of teachers and principals.
  • Measurement and adjustments in professional development for teachers for constant improvements in student achievement.

Lancaster ISD students have made impressive gains in math and science scores on standardized tests.

“The gains are something to be celebrated,” Kyndra said. “These middle school students will enter high school more prepared for post-secondary education and have a great awareness of career pathways.

“We want students to graduate with more than a diploma. We want to help them graduate with certifications and/or dual credit. We’re seeing the graph go up and to the right, and next we’ll see evidence of the kids’ performance on exams…They will be reaching higher.”

The district was recently recognized by the Texas Education Agency with a T-STEM Exemplary Award and a grant for an Innovative Learning Lab – signs that the district has become a mature, role model district. Lancaster ISD also earned a “Bright Spot Award” from the Commit! Partnership, an community organization which helps drive student achievement in Dallas County by leveraging data, expertise and collaboration.

Bringing it home

Trevor said that some of his fellow students gave him a hard time about being a math geek. His response?

“Hey, a geek made your cell phone!”

Trevor’s hope is that, as an engineer, he can help make things better.

“There’s always something more reliable, more economical or environmentally safe,” he said.

And it’s not lost on Trevor that black engineers are few and far between.

“I can set an example,” he said. “It can happen.”