WORK WITH PARENTS & THE COMMUNITY
Creating and Sustaining Successful K–8 Magnet
September 2008
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Raymond Academy for Engineering
Houston

 

Selected Characteristics of Magnet School and Host Districta
Magnet School: Raymond Academy Host District: Aldine Independent School District
Year Established as Magnet 1998 Population Typeb Large Suburb
Theme Engineering Size 111 square miles
Grades K-4 MSAPc Funded Funded: FY 1995-97; 2001-03
Enrollment 846 students Enrollment 16,748 magnet students out of 58,831 students
Student Ethnicity 69% Hispanic
18% African-American
8% White
5% Asian
Student Ethnicity
(grades K-5)
65% Hispanic
30% African-American
4% White
2% Asian
Special Education 8% Special Education 8%
Free or Reduced-price Lunch 79% Free or Reduced-price Lunch 85%
English Language Learners 31% English Language Learners 41%

a All data self-reported by school or district for school year 2006-07.
b From National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data for the school year 2005-06, http://nces.ed.gov/ccd/districtsearch
c Magnet Schools Assistance program

"If you can dream it, you can build it. Everything is engineered—from the ink we're using to the chairs we sit in," says Terri Clemmons, the magnet coordinator and assistant principal at Raymond Academy for Engineering. This perspective drives the school's entire curriculum, as teachers use an engineering focus to prepare each student for college and beyond.

The theme is evident in every classroom. A first-grade teacher uses a classic children's story to explore construction and civil engineering. "All of a sudden, The Three Little Pigs takes on a whole new meaning," says the teacher, whose students use Legos to learn the basics of creating a "wolf-proof" structure. During the mechanical engineering unit, students study simple machines and the relationship between force and motion through increasingly complex projects. For example, all students learn to create simple roller coasters, then in third and fourth grade are challenged to meet tougher requirements, such as adding hills and loops for their roller coasters.

Raymond Academy is rated an "Exemplary School" by the Texas Education Agency, an impressive achievement given the number of economically disadvantaged students enrolled. Increasing each year, student achievement now surpasses district and state performance levels. In most grades and subjects, more than 98 percent of the school's students pass the statewide assessments.

Founding and Early Challenges

Like many other magnet schools, the push to open Raymond Academy came from court-ordered desegregation efforts. The immediate purpose was to increase the number of African-American students in the then predominately Hispanic school. Today, the elementary school more accurately mirrors its district's demographics.

Even before Raymond Academy opened as a magnet, Houston families wanted their children to acquire skills marketable in the area's oil and gas industries. The school's engineering theme serves that purpose, providing an integrated curriculum centered on applied science, mathematics, and technology. To staff the school, district leaders employed all their science specialists and brought in outside consultants, including a Rice University professor who had implemented a science-themed school for a neighboring district.

One early challenge was transforming an old building into classrooms and laboratories appropriate to an engineering-focused facility. This required exploring different technology and lab activity. Raising funds was another major hurdle. Yet another obvious challenge was preparing the school's teachers, trained in elementary education, to become engineering specialists capable of developing and implementing a strong mathematics and science curriculum. The staff embraced this challenge, particularly by taking advantage of district-led professional development and Saturday workshops hosted by the University of Texas.

Support from Aldine Independent School District was key. District leaders had done their research and realized that an elementary school with an engineering theme would stand a better chance of thriving if it were part of a complete K-12 vertical strand. They began implementing a vertical engineering strand by gathering teachers from elementary, middle, and high schools together at the central office for discussions. Creating this continuity ensured that Raymond students would be able to follow their chosen course of study through high school within the Aldine system. It also has provided a collaborative network of district educators who support each other on theme-specific issues.

Implementing a Successful Program

Teachers implement the engineering theme primarily through project- and problem-based instruction. Students are encouraged to explain their process for coming up with a solution rather than simply computing an answer. This strong emphasis on critical thinking and communicating the process is tied to four areas: imagination, creativity, design, and supposition—asking "what if."

In a third-grade lab, students work in groups designing a bridge from cardboard and string to create a structure that will hold a number of golf balls. At the end of class, each team presents its design to the class and answers questions such as, "Why did you choose this design?" and "What are its particular strengths?" The ultimate assessment begins when students test the strength of their bridges by loading on golf balls.

Raymond Academy teachers strive to value each student's contributions and to help them see the possibilities in becoming successful engineers. During Black History month, for example, in a set of lessons about famous African-Americans and inventors, the teachers focus not only on original inventors but also challenge students to document people who later added value to the inventions. For example, African-American Alexander Miles did not invent the first elevator, but he did patent an electric elevator in 1887. His contribution was to create an automatic mechanism that closed access to the shaft so that people would not have to remember to close the door manually. His improvement resulted in fewer accidental falls down elevator shafts. Raymond Academy teachers use this and other examples to demonstrate how engineers are constantly applying critical thinking skills and engineering expertise to improve original designs.

Cooperative learning techniques encourage students to work together and go beyond the textbook. The lab facilitator starts the year being very direct with students about each of their roles and taking turns: "Person number one is going to record the results, person number two is going to pour the liquid into the beaker," and so on. As the year progresses, students assume different roles in the lesson. With constant reinforcement and opportunities to practice good group work, students are internalizing habits of collaboration.

Ongoing professional development, both on and off campus, has been key to Raymond's success. One program called Balanced Literacy guides teachers in individualizing instruction through observing how each student behaves as a learner. Teachers plan and participate in summer science academies, practicing lab activities before integrating them into their curriculum. At Rice University and elsewhere, teachers gain hands-on approaches for teaching higher-level problem solving, algebraic thinking, and analytical reasoning. Raymond uses a "teach the teachers" approach in which attendees come back to share learning with the rest of the faculty. Teachers then collaboratively work to plan engineering-related lessons based on what they have learned, aligning those lessons with national, state, and local standards.

Staff meetings take place frequently under principal Linda Miller's leadership. A shared leadership model permeates the school culture and helps peers hold each other accountable. Learning specialists meet once a week, and grade-level teams have at least 50 minutes of common planning time daily. In addition, the faculty (80-90 staff members in all) gathers every other Thursday. Each grade-level team builds on its list of needs throughout the year, and a leadership committee meets regularly to determine how to fund what the teachers need. Continuing to align lab activities and classroom science instruction to state standards, faculty members say, is the key to maintaining the engineering theme.

Establishing Systems for Sustainability

Principal Miller has created systems and provided support that encourage all teachers to be data driven. She works closely with the school's magnet coordinator and specialists to get data into teachers' hands in a timely manner. The district has helped by providing an online curriculum and data management system. The school does provide remedial support, but teachers also look for areas of weakness in teaching, then work to improve instruction through professional development and coaching from their team.

As a result of a district partnership grant, Raymond's after-school hallways are buzzing with activity. For example, AmeriCorps volunteers lead students through a science experiment, dance classes start in the cafeteria, and tutoring takes place in several classrooms. Students in the after-school program also can work with local architects and volunteers from NASA.

Both teachers and parents say they experience a real sense of family at Raymond. During at least two family nights per month, teachers conduct engineering lessons for parents and students to use at home. Parents also can take courses on English as a second language through Raymond Academy's after-school program. Parents receive progress reports from each teacher every three weeks, and they have access to ParentCONECT, which provides online access to lesson summaries and homework throughout the district.

To date, the school has shown tremendous student achievement results and has closed the achievement gap. "There is no reason our kids can't leave here performing three or four grade levels above [their current levels]," principal Miller says.

Sustaining Success at Raymond Academy for Engineering: Milestones

Raymond Academy was carefully designed to meet desegregation goals. The theme was chosen based on community feedback and developed as part of a districtwide K-12 vertical strand for engineering. Raymond has sustained its success by "homegrowing" leaders, continually refining its curriculum, and integrating technology in the classroom.

1996-97

Raymond selected as magnet site to attract African-American students to the predominantly Hispanic school. Aldine staff survey families to determine theme.

Raymond Academy is converted into an engineering magnet elementary school as part of a K-12 vertical strand. District commits to funding a full-time science specialist at each of the seven participating schools.

Curriculum planning and start-up support coordinated by district staff. Raymond faculty attend Saturday workshops at the University of Texas.

1998

Raymond begins first year as engineering magnet with existing principal David Brenek in place.

Staff meet more frequently to address the challenge of learning engineering curriculum. Pilot inclusion model for special education students.

1999

Brenek leaves and Jennifer Marcoux is selected as new principal for her magnet school leadership experience. Staff align curriculum with standards and across grade levels. School is renovated to showcase its engineering theme more vividly.

2001

Linda Miller becomes principal when Marcoux accepts principal position in another district. Miller has worked with engineering magnets, including Raymond, in her role as director of math.

Miller introduces motto to focus staff on common priorities tied to the mission.

Harris County Department of Education funds Cooperative for After-school Enrichment (CASE) at Raymond through a U.S. Department of Education 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant. Program includes after-school tutorial for struggling students and enrichment activities.

2002

Aldine is declared a unitary status district, releasing it from a court-ordered desegregation plan. Random lottery process for student enrollment adopted. Staff target recruitment at African-American schools and neighborhoods to maintain integrated student body at Raymond.

2003

Students learn to use media technologies, such as video cameras and PowerPoint slide shows as part of lab curriculum.

2005

Staff reorganize curricular scope and sequence to align with state science assessments. Test scores improve.

2006

After-school program at Raymond is chosen as AmeriCorps project site.

Raymond wins third Magnet Schools of America excellence award.

Bilingual program added to serve increasing English language learner population.

2007

Two staff are "homegrown" into leadership positions: assistant principal and director of intervention and community relations.

Raymond awarded Title I Distinguished Performance Award (a program instituted under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001).

 


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Last Modified: 09/28/2009