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Southern Dallas County is reaping benefits of STEM initiatives

June 20, 2023

A blueprint for student success has been created in Lancaster, DeSoto and Cedar Hill.

This story was originally published by The Dallas Morning News

In 2011, STEM initiatives took root and a transformative journey began in southern Dallas County. Today, as the first cohort of students prepared to graduate high school, we witnessed the profound impact of their educational journey: about 1,600 students across three districts; 234 of them earned associate degrees.

Needless to say, a lot has changed for students, educators and the community since this initiative began.

For Educate Texas and its funding partner, Texas Instruments Foundation, the hunger for change within the Lancaster Independent School District made all the difference in knowing where to start. College and career pathways were raising student expectations. Professional development was equipping educators to focus instruction on 21st-century skills. Additionally, a homegrown pool of workforce talent was fueling job opportunities by further strengthening the business landscape.

The district and the city of Lancaster were lagging behind Dallas’ industrial, tech and economic growth. As TI Foundation Executive Director Andy Smith explained prior to the initiative, there was no grant money to speak of in southern Dallas County school districts, where more than one-third of residents live in poverty.

Today, southern Dallas County is growing and becoming increasingly important to the local economy and workforce needs. That growth is evident in the gradual shift of farmland to industrial complexes, warehouse facilities, hospitals and other developments. It’s also apparent in the housing market, which has been on the rise after years of stagnation. As the business sector grows, so do employment opportunities for those with the right knowledge and skills. And as the housing market grows, so does the public profile of local school districts.

Lancaster emerged as the perfect starting point for this transformative endeavor. Under the leadership of visionary Superintendent Michael McFarland and a united community, the district embraced the hunger for change.

By emphasizing professional development for educators and fostering a strong relationship with the board, Lancaster set the stage for success. The city government and the school district collaborated, aligning their plans to create a reinforcing partnership, setting an example for the region.

The results of this collaboration have been remarkable. Lancaster, along with neighboring DeSoto and Cedar Hill school districts, rose to the top in terms of opportunity, establishing the area’s first districtwide STEM program in 2012. The TI Foundation and Educate Texas partnership transformed Lancaster ISD into a STEM learning environment from pre-K through 12th grade. The impact was undeniable, with math and science scores substantially improving, the state accountability rating rising from a D to a B, and learning gaps being closed. The subsequent grant focusing on reading across all content areas further propelled the district’s progress.

At the high school level, students are encouraged to pursue pathways designed to balance today’s needs and interests with tomorrow’s possibilities. For example, dual-credit courses, work-based learning, and other programs give students the option to earn college credit, certifications and wages before they finish high school.

Bold investments have been made to change the narrative in southern Dallas County. Since 2012, the TI Foundation’s commitment to education programs in southern Dallas County has totaled $21.6 million, including funding specifically allocated to embed STEM teaching, thinking and problem-solving skills across entire school districts in Lancaster, Cedar Hill and DeSoto. This funding strategy aims to empower southern Dallas County students, ensuring that their backgrounds or residential postal codes do not limit their potential.

There have been challenges along the way, but stakeholders from Educate Texas and the TI Foundation remain committed to the process, holding regular meetings with the school board to discuss which targets they’ve hit, as well as strategies for accelerating or changing directions to achieve others. TI Foundation’s strong ties to the engineering discipline gave the team permission to admit when something wasn’t working and to try another approach.

Contrary to popular belief, STEM grants extend beyond equipment and technology. In today’s dynamic STEM environment, funding is primarily directed toward professional development, student support and community outreach. These grants have also assisted the districts with recovery strategies to address pandemic-induced learning loss, a challenge that affected southern Dallas County significantly.

The interconnectedness of Lancaster, DeSoto and Cedar Hill communities cannot be overlooked. Due to local relocations, students often move between these districts, necessitating a cohesive multidistrict STEM program. This collaborative effort not only allows for smoother transitions between districts but also addresses unique challenges faced by each community. For instance, Lancaster had a shortage of health care facilities, while DeSoto and Cedar Hill benefited from proximity to Methodist Charlton Medical Center. By working together, the districts can increase pipelines in health care and explore opportunities for “grow your own educators” programs to address staffing needs.

The impact of these STEM initiatives goes beyond individual districts. Success stories have emerged, including the graduation of the first Gates and West Point scholars from Lancaster. Parents have become more engaged in their children’s education, benefiting from expanded services such as financial aid counseling and job application guidance. The program has created a ripple effect that extends beyond the local level by equipping students, teachers, administrators and parents with the tools for success.

In 2019, DeSoto and Cedar Hill joined the initiative, cementing the foundation for a cohesive multidistrict STEM environment. This collaborative effort ensures that students continue to receive quality education even when transitioning between districts. These STEM grants’ shared vision and value are paramount in preparing students for future employment opportunities. By providing technical assistance and training for school leaders to upskill careers and technical education, students are equipped with the necessary skills and exposure to industries, broadening their possibilities.

The impact of STEM initiatives in transforming education in southern Dallas County extends beyond local success. It is an example for other communities, demonstrating the power of investing in our youth, offering comprehensive support and fostering collaborative partnerships. Together, we can shape a future where every student has an equal opportunity to thrive and make meaningful contributions to our ever-evolving society.

Kenya Wilson is the director for Educate Texas’ College and Career Readiness, providing technical support to designated STEM schools, Early College High Schools, and Pathways in Technology and Industry Cluster/Innovative Academies schools across Texas. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

Read the column from The Dallas Morning News, here

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