Orange County Public Schools desperately wants to give every student access to careers in engineering, physics and computer science. Here’s how I know.

Orange County Public Schools desperately wants to give every student access to careers in fields like engineering, physics, computer science and the health professions.

How do I know this? Exhibit A is the district’s Calculus Project, in which it identifies low-income students who earn a score of 3 (out of 5) on the 6th grade state math test and then invites those students into a 7th grade Algebra 1 class – a privilege usually reserved for students earning the maximum score of 5 on the 6th grade state math exam. The district then makes a significant investment in each student who accepts that invitation in the form of a summer math boot camp and extra afterschool math tutoring.

The investment is in some sense risky. Not all of the 7th graders in the Calculus Project succeed on the state’s Algebra 1 end-of-course exam at the end of the following year. But enough of the Calculus Project 7th graders succeeded on that exam in the Spring of 2018 to make Orange County one of the state’s leaders in Algebra 1 success among black middle school students.

Orange County now also offers physics and calculus in every one of its regular district high schools – even the low income schools that nationally tend to neglect those subjects. In a few cases, those courses are being offered despite small enrollments of a dozen or so students. In other districts, such low enrollments are often used to justify course cancellation.

There is more to making these high level courses available to every student than just flipping a switch. Recruiting the teachers necessary to provide calculus and physics courses in every school is an enormous challenge in Florida. One of the ways in which the Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) talent recruiting staff is addressing this challenge is by going directly to science departments and their students at UCF and FSU – a strategy that no other school district in Florida has adopted, to my knowledge. Other school districts recruit only by working through Colleges of Education – where science and math students are quite scarce – or by holding open job fairs (which amounts to waiting for the fish to jump into the boat on their own).

I was reminded on Tuesday evening about all of these initiatives when the Orange County School Board recognized me for my very small contribution to several of the district’s efforts to encourage their teachers and students in physics and related subjects. The project that the OCPS district staff featured on Tuesday evening was a field trip taken in April to FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and College of Medicine by 50 middle school students – 10 from each of Orange County’s lowest-income middle schools – and five of the schools’ educators. Five of the students who participated in the field trip read reflections about the experience to the school board. Many more came to be recognized, along with their parents.

Five middle school students who participated in the April field trip to FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and College of Medicine share their reflections about the experience with the Orange County School Board. (Picture from Rebecca Ray)

Middle school students, teachers and staff who participated in the April field trip to FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and College of Medicine gather at the Orange County School Board meeting on June 11. (Picture from Rebecca Ray)

School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs took the opportunity to thank me, including presenting me with a plaque – the first time that has happened to me in a K-12 setting. In turn, I applauded the Board for their work to provide access to careers in engineering, physics and computer science for all of their students. Black students in particular are severely underrepresented among bachelor’s degree graduates in these fields in Florida (and in the rest of the nation).

I also begged the parents of the students on the field trip to send their students to FSU – and to my classroom. I need them. We need them.

In addition to the field trip, I am working with OCPS district staff and teachers on several other projects. This past school year, I met with the district’s high school principals and many of the district’s physics teachers to discuss the importance of high school courses in calculus, chemistry and physics to prepare for college majors in engineering, the physical sciences, computing and the health professions. I am working with FSU Physics colleague Simon Capstick to build relationships with teachers in the school district’s North Area, including Apopka. Simon will spend two weeks this summer with elementary and middle school teachers in the North Area. I am planning visits with Apopka-area teachers during the 2019-20 school year.

All of these efforts are focused on building one-on-one relationships, and I sometimes question myself about their significance in a 200,000-student school district. But these intensely interpersonal efforts are the only way forward, and I am taking my inspiration from the district staff and teachers with whom I am working. Some of them have worked for years in the district’s lowest income schools, and they know to keep going forward, one student and one teacher at a time.

As much as I appreciate the plaque that I was awarded on Tuesday night by the school board, my greatest reward has been the friendships I’ve been fortunate to make with the teachers and district staff I work with. The plaque will occupy a place of honor in my office, but I’ll carry those friendships with me forever.

Some of my Central Florida friends and collaborators. From left: UCF Physics-Teacher-in-Residence Adam LaMee, OCPS Director of Talent Acquisition Bonnie Toffoli, OCPS Chief of Staff Bridget Williams, OCPS Director of Curriculum and Instruction Pam Villalba, OCPS Secondary Science and Social Studies Senior Administrator Rebecca Ray, and me (with the plaque I was awarded by the Orange County School Board). Picture from Rebecca Ray.
I address the Orange County School Board on June 11. Picture from Bonnie Toffoli.

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