No excuses, just solutions

No excuses, just solutions is the motto of McKinley Technological High School, located in a disadvantaged area in Northeast quadrant of Washington DC. It evokes very well the ‘no nonsense’ attitude of the teachers and students there. So far McKinley is the only school we have visited and unlike some of our other meetings that have been between an hour to two hours long, we had the luxury of having more time in the school. Consequently, we got the chance to talk through the ways the school is addressing STEM education and it also meant we could meet a number of teachers, visit lessons and chat with students. McKinley appears to be used to visitors. The current principal, Dr. Louise Jones, continues to promote STEM and good results continue to be achieved by the students.

It seems Public Schools in DC (and presumably this is true across the United States) are not known for their high academic achievement.  McKinley in contrast is very successful: it has a selective intake of students and is know colloquially as a “magnet” school. It has a very flexible curriculum as well as a gradually expanding internship programme run by Robert Holm who places students in high tech companies in DC at different times in the year and over the summer.

Students have a range of subject options in technical education and they take industry accredited assessments. Subjects included Computer Science, to Graphic Design, CISCO systems classes and Cyber Security (it is Washington DC after all!). In addition to the technical stuff for Cyber Security they were reading America the Vulnerable by Joel Brenner.

In most lessons students were in mixed aged groupings. In the computer science class, for example, students were aged anything from 14 to 17 in the same lesson, and were being taught algebra via the racket computer language (or is that the other way round? Either way it was new to me!). In another lesson a small group of students presented their thoughts to us about what they were learning (3D game development using AutoDesk Maya) and we had a brilliant discussion with them about their future career options. Interestingly not everyone in the class was looking to work in a STEM career but saw what they could get out of learning the skills involved in that class.

Finally, in a Graphic Design lesson two students presented their graphic design projects to us, while everyone else got on with their work. In this lesson I was blown away by the confidence of both students. They were as articulate as they were self-aware. In particular 16-year-old Diamond, who was sporting a bright rainbow belt and a pair of rainbow-coloured long, fingerless gloves to her elbow, quite literally wore her identity on her sleeve. It’s pretty clear that the Safe Schools programme that was pioneered in Massachusetts in the early 1990s, has left a very important legacy for schools in America. This is certainly one of the areas I think we still have a lot of progress to make in Ireland. No excuses indeed!

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