An Interview with Dr. Nancy Songer, Dean of the Drexel School of Education

Posted by on July 13, 2015 K-16 Newsletter

By Eden Kainer

Following up on a presentation about a strong partnership between Drexel and McMichael school at the recent K-16 Partnerships Institute given by Maria Walker, Project Manager for University and Community Partnerships at Drexel University, PHENND later spoke to Dr. Nancy Songer, Dean of the School of Education at Drexel.

Dr. Songer, who is coming up on her one-year anniversary at the university, previously served on the faculty at the University of Michigan for 18 years. During this time she was Principal Investigator of 22 million dollars in National Science Foundation grant monies to help improve STEM education, with particular emphasis on teachers and students within Detroit Public Schools. The goal was to provide curriculum and programming to help 4-12th grade students improve their engagement with STEM as well as their performance on the state test in science.

She worked intensively with 22 middle schools, including helping students to perform significantly better on state exams in 4th and 8th grade. She led a team that developed curricular units and associated learning technologies that served as replacements for existing district curricula. One thing she enjoys about her new home is the number of stakeholders who have made it their life work to help students in Philadelphia.

Q: Can you give us a little history about the Drexel/McMichael School partnership?

A: This relationship has a lot of history that precedes me, but several years ago, there was interest generated by Lucy Kerman [currently Vice Provost, University and Community Partnerships at Drexel] and others at Drexel to draw on resources within the university to partner with neighborhood schools, with specific emphasis on McMichael and Powel Schools. This idea was put forward as an actualization of Drexel President John Fry’s call to make Drexel the most civically engaged university in the country.

In June of 2014, Drexel University and Wexford  Science and Technology purchased a 14-acre site that includes land where University City High School used to be located (Here is an article about this

Drexel’s plan is to work with personnel within the School District of Philadelphia to build a brand new K-8 school on this site. Drexel’s roles will be to finance the construction of the building and to provide resources to assist School District personnel in academics, professional development, and other services.

The school will consist of two buildings: A relocated K-4 Samuel Powel school and a 5-8 STEM-focused middle school currently called Science Leadership Academy Middle School or SLAMS. The middle school will begin to accept 5th graders in fall of 2016. Powel will be relocated to the 14 acre site in the fall of 2018.  In addition, Drexel will continue to work intensively with Morton McMichael school as one of our high priority schools. With the closure of University City High School, there is no high school in our immediate neighborhood, so Drexel plans to also emphasize ways to help McMichael and SLAMS middle schoolers get ready to apply and go to high quality high schools in the city.

McMichael has its own unique history and relationship with Drexel. In 2012, when the SDP had decided on 33 schools to be closed, McMichael was on the list. In part because Drexel was in the conversation with the principal, Brian Wallace, about being part of a turnaround effort, McMichael survived this threat.

Q: In what capacity had Drexel been working with Principal Wallace?

A: All our work with McMichael begins with listening to and working to support Principal Wallace’s vision for the school. One of Principal Wallace’s priorities is to target specific activities to help improve student achievement. McMichael has a higher percentage than average of students with special needs (about 25%). Principal Wallace felt he needed a two-fold process to address this: 1) a good screening process to determine the kinds of special needs, and 2) a menu of options for interventions to help the kids get their needs met.

Q: What did you do in response to the principal’s needs assessment?

A: Drexel individuals including Dr. James Connell of the School of Education and the Autism Institute obtained research funding focused on supporting the implementation of a screening and intervention program called Response to Intervention (RTI) and Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS). Particularly in the past year, we have seen strong improvement in early grades math and literacy as a result of providing supplemental supports to ensure the implementation of these systems with fidelity.

The screening resulted in three levels of need: Tier 1, or whole class interventions, Tier 2 (small group) or Tier 3 (indiviual intervention).  Twelve classrooms received whole-class interventions as a result of the screening.

Figure 1illustrates the results from the fall 2014 screening of a second grade classroom in the area of Math Computation Fluency. More than half of the students’ performance fell within the below average range (salmon color), thus indicating a class-wide evidenced based math computation intervention should be implemented as the first step in the RtI process. This same class’s performance on the winter 2015 screening of Math Computation Fluency is presented in Figure 2.



Overall, these results suggest a significant improvement in the number of students performing within the average and above average ranges by the second time point.

Q: Did being in the designated Promise Zone influence the success of these first three grants?

A: Not directly. The Promise Zone is a designation that helps organizations in the zone receive special consideration for federal grant applications. While we have received recent grants for our work in McMichael and Powel related to math, literacy and science including a recent grant from PECO and two Pennsylvania Department of Education grants, GEAR Up and 21st Century, we are also writing new federal grants this summer that will directly refer to the Promise Zone designation.

Q: What does Drexel’s engagement currently look like at McMichael?

A: Drexel pays for 1.5 full time personnel at McMichael. The full time person there is Crystal Cubbage, a specialists in STEAM and School Planning. She is responsible for STEM curriculum during the day and uses Drexel undergraduate STEM majors to help run a science after school club. Currently the kids are studying and building DNA models.

The half-time person is Brigid Garvin, who is the RTI specialist. She is a leader and trainer for the Rti and PBIS screening and interventions. With the austerity of the SDP budget, we are finding that it is very helpful to have Drexel-supported individuals who can provide assistance to help fill in the gap identified by the principals. An added bonus to Brigid’s presence, is that her supervisor, Dr. James Connell, is an autism specialist. With some of the grant money, we have also been able to pay two student interns to help with the screening and interventions. Recently we hired individuals from Temple University. This opportunity came about through Jim Connell’s connection to Temple. I like this, because it adds another university partner in support of the principal’s interests at McMichael.

Q: What are you seeing as positive outcomes from this work?

A: Because we are working from Principal Wallace’s priorities, providing staff support from Drexel, and capitalizing on the interest of some Drexel STEM students to work in schools, we are making a positive impact that is also evidenced in the results.

Q: How do you work together as a team to set goals and monitor progress?

A: I am part of team supported by the Lenfest Foundation that consists of Drexel, McMichael and Powel-associated individuals who meet regularly every month. These meetings are focused on common goals and ways to achieve a larger collective impact in the schools. While these meetings have just begun, we are already realizing common goals and finding new ways to build on our individual strengths towards strong outcomes.

I am very optimistic that our neighborhood-based partnership that includes public school and university members can collectively realize amazing results.

As members of the same neighborhood, we all see West Philadelphia kids as our kids. As a result, we all want the same goals: Excellent schools, learning opportunities, principals and teachers for our kids.

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