MANATEE COUNTY — East County resident Doug Wagner has a big dream for education.
It’s a $28.7 million dream, to be exact.
Wagner, director of Adult, Career & Technical Education, and his team at the Manatee County School District submitted their roughly 400-page grant application Monday, Oct. 29, for the four-year federal Race to the Top district competition grant.
Wagner admits the competition is bound to be fierce, with nearly 900 applicants giving a notice of intent to compete for one of up to 40 grants totaling up to $400 million. But, he remains cautiously optimistic.
Manatee schools have faired well in grant requests previously, with the Adult, Career & Technical Education department earning 301 of 392 grants it applied for in the last 11 years — for a total of $88.5 million.
“We’ll know by Dec. 20 (if we got it),” Wagner said.
Called “Manatee County is F.I.R.S.T (Fully Integrated Reading Science Technology) in the Race to Student Success,” Manatee’s grant request asks for: $11.23 million to create STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, labs at up to 41 elementary schools and also includes funding for teacher staff positions, training, equipment and supplies; $3.29 million for elementary personalized learning environments, which incorporate digital learning with project-based learning, classroom libraries and other options; $9.29 million for elementary teacher leadership learning, to provide school professional development and district-wide curriculum alignment and redesign employing core curriculum; $1.09 million for creating program sustainability through community partnerships and evaluations; and $3.88 million for establishing a Technology Zone for students at Manatee Technical Institute’s East Campus off State Road 70.
“We believe there has to be a way for students to apply what they are learning,” Wagner said. “What they learn to solve is real world problems — that’s engineering.”
Manatee County’s history in engineering and technology programs is rich, starting with industrial arts programs at all of the high schools and middle schools more than three decades ago. The program morphed into technology education during the late ’90s and now has advanced into engineering.
“Like many of our career-and-technical education programs, engineering provides a solid foundation to link academics with solving real world hands-on problems,” Wagner said. “It became a really exciting when our Technology Student Association (TSA) students began competing in 2003 and proved to the rest of the state and nation that Manatee County students and teachers are second to none.”
Manatee County has produced more winners in student TSA and SkillsUSA competitions at the national level than any other state — not just a district — for six years, Wagner said. And eight of nine eighth-graders from Haile Middle School passed industry certifications for the Solidworks 3-D modeling program this summer.
“It’s never been done before,” Wagner said.
Although the accomplishments of Manatee students bode well for the STEM cause, Wagner said the data backs the STEM concept, as well, although he admits other factors could influence student success at each school. Even still, the three elementary schools that have offered specific STEM curriculum for three years or more — Abel, Freedom and McNeal — show significant learning gains at grade level, particularly by fifth-grade students. Averaged results from the FCAT show 57% of fifth-graders at the three STEM schools tested proficient in math compared to 46% at the district’s 37 non-STEM elementary schools. Additionally, 45% of fifth-graders at the three STEM schools tested proficient in science, compared to about 38% at non-STEM schools, and 63% tested proficient in reading, compared to 53% at non-STEM schools.
McNeal Elementary was the first school to start an engineering program at the elementary level, and Freedom Elementary followed suit, as did Abel Elementary, a Title I school. Today, nine elementary schools, including Braden River in the East County, offer STEM programming to students.
The grant would bring the curriculum to the remainder of the district’s 41 elementary schools, as well as to seven of eight charter schools, if they opt to participate in the program.
“We want every student in Manatee County to have this opportunity,” Wagner said. “STEM makes learning exciting. It really gives relevance back to the academic side of things. It shows how academics apply to everyday (life).”
Each school would have its own technology lab, complete with a magnetic levitation track, wind tunnels, a production area and other equipment.
“The whole room would be painted with the dry-erase paint,” Wagner said.
Teachers at schools participating in the program would receive Common Core and STEM training as part of funding, and every elementary classroom would have its own library.
“Our teachers are a critical component (for) the children’s education,” Wagner said. “We have to invest in the teachers.”
The MTI component of grant proposal, Wagner said, is its “standout” feature. The STEM Experience at MTI’s TECH (Technology & Enterprise Career Hub) Zone, as it has been dubbed, would be a roughly 15,000-square-foot expansion to the newly constructed MTI campus off State Road 70 that is slated to open in the coming months.
Wagner describes a scene in which fifth-grade students walk into an auditorium and watch a technology-inspired video on a 20-foot television screen. They’d see, for example, a dune buggy driving around, as well as different components of the vehicle. At the video’s conclusion, a presenter would challenge them to construct the vehicle themselves, in groups. They’d be given a budget, a store at which to purchase parts and a challenge to build it using engineering skills learned in the classroom.
The students would also be able to eat lunch at MTI and go on a scavenger hunt in the building, which would expose them to potential industry and technology-related career opportunities.
If the grant were approved, construction on the TECH Zone would start in January, pending acceptance of the grant by the Manatee County School Board.
Funding also would be provided for girls-only engineering summer camps and partnerships with local agencies, such as the United Way, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee and the NAACP, to bring STEM training to community sites outside the classroom.
“I really think this is going to be something every student is going to say, ‘This is what education is all about,’” Wagner said. “We want this grant to be a model (for other districts).”
Wagner said Manatee Schools would make its curriculum available to other districts nationwide online.
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Doug Wagner, director of Adult, Career & Technical Education, said local engineering teachers and others weighed heavily into the proposal, offering their suggestions and expertise to ensure the grant application stands out against the competition.
Additionally, the teachers union in Manatee County, the Manatee Education Association, has partnered with the school district for the first time for a grant application, Wagner said.