Monday, March 30, 2015

Robots: a Hands-On Approach to STEM Education

Stephanie Tam
California eighth graders are ranked 45th in the country in math. That’s according to the most recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Meanwhile, the pool of jobs requiring math, science, and engineering experience is growing, especially here in the Bay Area. For people with the right skills, these jobs have become the latest iteration of the American dream -- steady, livable wages, and plenty of demand.

In San Francisco, a few high schools have started offering hands on tech experience to students in after school robotics clubs. George Washington High School in San Francisco’s Richmond District is one of them. They’ve entered a national robot-building competition of 3,000 teams. They have six weeks to build a robot that can lift and stack big plastic bins, for a regional contest in Davis.

Around week three, about twenty students are clustered in groups in a small classroom. They’re hunched over computer screens, with bucket-sized bubble teas on their desks. On the floor, there’s something that looks like a car battery got in a fight with a Roomba, scooting back and forth on command. The students have been working on it every day after school - all-day on Saturdays too.

“We don't come on Sundays - we would if we could,” said senior Sheldon Lau. “But they don't let us.” 

Not only do these students have to build and design a robot from scratch, they have to write code to make it perform specific functions. Taxi Situ described the first time they made the robot move.  “Everyone was cheering, everyone was taking their phones out and taking pictures of it,” said Situ. “SnapChat was a thing.”

For Situ - and everyone else on the team -- robot building is a completely new experience. This is compounded by the fact that there are only so many people who can help them. Many of the adults in these students’  lives have little understanding of what they are doing. “My parents aren't really into this techie kind of stuff,” says Lau. “I tell them I'm building a robot and they think I'm building some kind of android that's going to destroy the world or something I think it's because my parents - they don't work in these kinds of fields, like an engineering field or computer science, they do simple labor work, this is kind of a different world to them.”

So instead the Internet  - namely instructional Youtube videos - have become their textbook. They also get help from adult mentors from nearby tech companies, more seasoned high school competitors, and teachers.  Math teacher John Hajel is advisor to the club. He also teaches Computer Science at the school, which has gained popularity throughout the years.

“This is the second year of computer science at Washington,” said Hajel. “They had it years and years ago but budget cuts happened. This year we have four computer science classes, with about hundred and twenty students. It's really good.”

As the Computer Science program at the school gained momentum, Hajel wanted students to get more hands-on training. So did senior Stephanie Tam. She had friends on Lowell High School’s accomplished Cardinalbotics team. So they started up a club just like it. Interest wasn’t a problem, but money was. The parts for the robot cost thousands of dollars alone. A neighborhood organization helped the club get 20,000 dollars from Facebook.

Tech money in the SFUSD is not a new thing. This past year alone, Salesforce.Com donated five million dollars to the district. Hajel says he’s grateful for the resources, but the tech giants make some educators uneasy.


April means poems and pockets!

April is National Poetry Month. But wait, don’t yawn, it’s not only about metaphors and syntax.

There are plenty of ways poetry comes alive in San Francisco’s public schools.

Teacher-librarian Tracy Heffernan, who teachers both at Francis Scott Key and Frank McCoppin Elementary Schools, describes how her schools celebrate poetry on the culmination of the special month, a day called Poem in Your Pocket Day (April 30):

“Poem in Your Pocket Day is a day set aside each year in April by the Poetry Foundation to celebrate and share poetry. At my schools we explore poetry for two weeks during library time and in the classroom.

“I have recycled/reclaimed book pockets and old catalog cards we use as materials, and baskets of poetry of all kinds in the classrooms and the library. At lunch, in the library and any time in the classroom, students read widely and either choose their favorite stanza from a published poem or create their own to write onto the back of the catalog card, place in their ‘pocket.’ They decorate and wear as a kind of necklace on the day to share with each other, all over the campus!”

She adds: “My students continue their exploration right through the end of the school year usually, they are so excited to discover poetry!”

Find out what your school is doing for National Poetry Month, and maybe even start a Poem in Your Pocket Day at your school.

For National Poetry Month, KALW and America SCORES Bay Area have teamed up to bring you Radio Poets, a program featuring the voices of young poets from San Francisco’s public schools.

Throughout April 2015, you can hear SFUSD students read their poems on KALW 91.7, Monday through Thursday at 3:19 p.m. and 8:58 p.m.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

S.F. Mission High kids learn mariachi and more

By Jill Tucker | SF Chronicle 

Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle
Instrumental music teacher Sofia Fojas, center, laughs as she leads the mariachi
class at Mission High School March 11, 2015 inSan Francisco, Calif. The class
will be performing in afree show called "ÁViva el Mariachi!" at 7:30pm on
March 19 atthe Mission High School Auditorium.
One student had played the cowbell in band class, another the tambourine and bells. But few of the 12 students sitting in the small theater at Mission High School had ever picked up a guitar until January, when they walked into the district’s first mariachi class in 30 years.

Seven weeks later, the students strummed the chords to “Volver, Volver,” a classic mariachi song about lost love and yearning, a real tearjerker. Some of the teens struggled to keep up with chord changes, but the melody was unmistakable.

Eddy Flores de León, 16, was the one playing cowbell in band class when he made the switch to guitar and the mariachi class for the spring semester.

Originally from Guatemala, he was unfamiliar with the Mexican music.

“It’s like a different sound, more unique,” said the sophomore, noting that no other high school in the district or area offers mariachi music. “I think it’s cool they tried it here first.”

A few days later at the district office, Superintendent Richard Carranza watched a video of Eddy and his classmates playing the Mexican love song and his face filled with emotion — a combination of joy and pride mixed with a bit of deja vu.

In the early 1990s, he had started a similar program in Tucson, where he was a social studies teacher at a school that was 92 percent Mexican American.

The program started with 11 students, and within 10 years Carranza was a full-time mariachi teacher with 250 students and a premier performance group, Mariachi Aztlán, that was paid for its gigs and toured the country. The money paid for college scholarships for the kids — $2,000 for each year the high school students were in the elite band.

“It brought a recognition of who they are, their cultural heritage, into the school,” he said. “We wanted to diversify what we considered art.”

And: “They always knew this was a vehicle to get to college.”

Carranza, a mariachi musician, said the program turned gangbangers into musicians with at least a 3.0 grade point average, which was required to perform.

And parent involvement exploded, as families held food fundraisers to buy costumes and showed up at performances to support the students, who won accolades across the country.

“Often times the athletes get all those kudos,” Carranza said. “This was so empowering for these kids.”


Monday, March 2, 2015

What should you know about the budget?

New expenditures

Budget priorities and increased expenditures
For the 2015-2016 school year, the biggest new districtwide expenses are increased employee costs, such as raises, retirement contributions and health benefits, and classroom technology.





How funds are allocated

The biggest factors in determining each school’s Weighted Student Formula and centrally funded Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) allocations are:
  1. Enrollment (per student allocation)
  2. Characteristics of students enrolled: the state’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) provides supplemental funding for low-income students, English-language learners and foster youth
  3. School characteristics determine centrally-funded MTSS resources