Real-life learning at Blue Ridge is good lesson for other schools

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Students, perhaps from the time schools started sprouting up in Europe in the 7th century, have complained about taking math and science classes.

“When will I ever use this?,” they asked, and asked ... and asked.

But the answers most receive were so abstract that students, particularly younger ones, could not relate it to their lives. As a result, a lot of kids wrote off math and science as a path to a career.

A different approach is being taken at Walla Walla’s Blue Ridge Elementary, one designed to ignite a desire to continue their education in STEM classes — science, technology, engineering and math.

Blue Ridge has adopted a real-life learning approach. Students are given roles in businesses that do things like make cars. They go through the process of research and development, learning lessons in the STEM fields along the way.

When Kim Doepker was named principal in 2009, just 9 percent students were passing the state’s standardized tests.

The scores have skyrocketed, according to U-B education reporter Ben Wentz , with the percentage of students passing the standardized tests hitting the mid-80s.

The school currently has 329 students, 92 percent of them qualify for free or subsidized lunches because of their family’s income. Close to 70 percent of students are of Hispanic heritage, about double for the district’s total student population.

Wentz took a look at what’s been going on there. In an article published on Wednesday’s front page, he wrote that Blue Ridge enacted several drastic changes as a result of the low scores, including a class platooning system in which students have different teachers for different topics, similar to how middle and high schools function.

“Everything we do, and everything we implement is so that when our students leave we have leveled the playing field so that they have the same abilities, opportunities and skills as students from any other elementary school,” Doepker said.

While the STEM lessons are just one piece of the ongoing effort to improve learning, it nevertheless seems to be significant.

With more stringent core subject standards (such as math), Blue Ridge is taking the lead in integrating STEM principles into its curriculum, with the goal of introducing all five grade levels to STEM within four years, beginning this year with fourth and fifth grades.

“I think that a lot of these kids think, you know, we’re just doing this fun activity,” said Janifer Sams, a fifth-grade teacher. “I want kids to realize this could be a real-life — this is completely STEM right here — that this is a real-life situation, that I have given you these tasks, these are the things you need to do, and you have this amount of time.”

Given the solid start at Blue Ridge, this is an approach worth using in other subjects and other schools.

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