Lindy Award Spotlight: 2016 Runner-Up Steppingstone Scholars’ Middle Grades Academy

Posted by on June 30, 2016

By Caitlin Fritz

The Phillip B. Lindy Award for Excellence in K-16 Partnerships aims to recognize collaborations between K-12 schools and universities, recognizing the contributions of Phil Lindy who valued collaboration and communication among diverse stakeholders in order to maximize impact. The 2016 award, which was given to the partnership between Overbrook Elementary and Bryn Mawr College, included many other great nominees, one of which was Steppingstone Scholars’ Middle Grades Academy (MGA), a partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, partner schools, the community, and university partners.

Steppingstone Scholars, Inc. was founded with a mission to “work with families and school partners to provide rigorous educational programming and support for talented underserved students in the Philadelphia region to achieve academic success, opportunity and a college degree.” MGA was started by Steppingstone Scholars in order to expand their programming to address a growing problem in Philadelphia: a broken college pipeline. “Philadelphia public schools start out with 15,000 kids in ninth grade and end up with less than 1,500 a decade later with college degrees,” Sean Vereen, President of Steppingstone Scholars, said. “So being successful within our core program, The Steppingstone Academy was good and we were helping kids but we needed to figure out how to realistically scale our work to deal with the college completion crisis.” MGA was developed to embed Steppingstone’s college-going culture within a whole school.

MGA operates at two Philadelphia schools: Dunbar Promise Academy and Tanner Duckery School in North Philadelphia. Temple University’s partnership with the program helped Steppingstone Scholars gain access to schools to implement the programming, specifically at Duckrey. “One issue was getting inside of the schools. We can bring our expertise and our pipeline into a school, but then we need to figure out how to align it with other resources and interventions going on at the same time,” Sean said. Expanding Steppingstone programs is not just about reaching more schools, but also how this work is a part of an overall effort for school improvement and college and career preparation. Temple University, with its deep commitment to schools in North Philadelphia and a College of Education with a significant infrastructure around urban education, was a natural and perfect partner for the program.

I was able to visit Steppingstone Scholars to see MGA first hand. I started my tour with Angela Thomas, Associate Director of Development and Communications, on Temple’s campus, where Steppingstone had just moved into new offices at the Ritter Annex, part of Temple’s College of Education.  We then took the short walk to Dunbar Promise Academy, a K-8 district school surrounded by Temple offices and dormitories.  There I met Barbara Cousar, the MGA STEAM Coordinator at Dunbar. She was meeting with eighth grade students to discuss the high school application process, and was encouraging them to include more competitive high schools such as Bodine, Carver High School for Engineering, the Parkways, and Central on their applications.

At Dunbar, Barbara also works to incorporate STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) into afterschool programming.  She engages the students in hands-on activities and brings in outside resources such as a traveling science lab.  Recently she helped coordinate an African-American scientist and innovator night at Dunbar. “If you excite them, they will want to do more,” says Barbara. To not only excite students, but to also foster a college going atmosphere, MGA programs receive assistance from Temple University practicum and workstudy students as part of the collaborative partnership Temple and Steppingstone have.

Steppingstone has also worked to support FIRST LEGO League robotics at the MGAs, where students work with LEGO technology to design, build, and program a robot and then compete on a table-top playing field. I was able to visit with the students at Dunbar as they worked to assemble their LEGO robots. The team started in October and had their first competition in January, where they won the ‘Gracious Professionalism’ award.  This type of project-based learning gives the students an opportunity to build problem-solving skills as they work with their teammates to finish the challenge. For many of the students, it is their first time playing with LEGOs, so for some there is a bit of practice at the beginning to get used to using the building blocks and following the directions. Older members of the team work with newer members to teach them how to set up the robots and the playing field.  Ms. Thomas, the math teacher at Dunbar who mentors the robotics team, discussed how the students had grown collectively as a team.  At their January competition, the Dunbar students were able to “interact with teams from other schools and learn from others, especially on the programming side,” commented Ms. Thomas.

The success of the Dunbar robotics team at their first competition, and the excitement generated afterwards, prompted Steppingstone to work with Penn Engineering and Central High School’s RoboLancers, who have a well-established presence in FIRST ROBOTICS, to host their Inaugural Steppingstone Scholars Robotics Competition this past spring. “I like robotics because I can make mistakes and go back and try to figure out what didn’t work,” mentioned a student as she demonstrated her robotic dog that she had programmed to bark. The students at Dunbar’s MGA were really inspiring, and I look forward to seeing where they go next!

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