Lehighton accepts challenge
Beth Hudlow directs the Lehighton Middle School Band as it performs the district's alma mater before the STEM Plus Academy of the Year award presentation Tuesday morning.
When Lehighton Area School District's board of directors approved a $6.5 million multipurpose athletic stadium, Superintendent Jonathan Cleaver couldn't have guessed one of the first images in the complex would be more than 1,000 elementary and middle school students doing the "Whip/Nae Nae" dance.
That was exactly the scene Tuesday morning, as the district celebrated its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Plus Academy of the Year honor. The national award netted Lehighton the $10,000 top prize and an additional $1,000 check.
Students, staff, school board members and dignitaries from the state Department of Education and the National Education Foundation attended the ceremony.
"We started our own STEM program here in Lehighton last year and, at the end of the year, I put out a challenge to go for the academy of the year in 2015-16," said Charles Bachert, Lehighton Middle School principal and STEM adviser.
"The students really lived up to it. They spoke volumes this year."
To mark the occasion, Dr. Appu Kattan, the 74-year-old founder and chairman of the National Education Foundation, challenged 16 Lehighton students and several members of its staff, including middle school Principal Dr. Mark McGalla, to a fitness contest.
Kuttan, who has advised former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the U.S. administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said students are more apt to have success with customized learning plans, which led to the STEM program he supports today.
"We all have 24 hours a day," he said. "Abraham Lincoln had the same 24 hours. It's all about using your time wisely. And have a passion for your work, school and life."
In its STEM Academy, Lehighton uses the Successmaker program, a personalized digital curriculum geared toward helping students improve in English language arts and math.
The goal is for K-6 students to improve one grade level in the two areas each year.
According to Bachert, 1,388 students used Successmaker in the past year, making Lehighton's STEM academy the largest in the country.
Lehighton students advanced a grade level in math and reading in 26 and 27 learning hours respectively.
Students' growth in reading and math ranged fromone year, two months to three years.
Three students completed the entire Successmaker math course and four completed the reading course.
Lehighton received $25,000 this year to spend on incentives for the students.
Every two weeks when the district runs growth reports, students are rewarded with Indian Bucks based on how much progress they have shown during the period. The Indian Bucks go into grade level boxes for midyear and end of year drawings. All four elementary schools combine the Indian Bucks together and choose a student from each grade level, K-4, to receive an iPad.
"We believe so much in this that as part of the renovations we are doing at the middle school, we are designating one classroom solely for STEM education," Cleaver said.
Helping to fund Lehighton's program was part of an $8.45 million Qualified Zone Academy Bond, a low-interest bond from the U.S. Department of Education, which the district received last year.
According to Kuttan, NEF plans to offer several additional STEM programs next year.
"We're going to be giving Minecraft licenses to students, so that they can compete for cash for their college fund," he said. "We will also offer a free professional development academy for teachers, a free training academy for parents, and a fitness/lifestyle improvement program for students."