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By Kristina Pritchett
When R.H. Dana Elementary doors open for the first day of school in August, it will officially open as R.H. Dana Elementary Science and Technology Academy. In the months leading up to this, however, the faculty is implementing new lessons and making changes throughout the campus.
R.H. Dana was one of the schools originally selected for the transition by Capistrano Unified School District in a School Closure Study. As part of the “elementary schools reimagining process,” seven elementary schools are being “re-imagined” to create unique themes and offer parents a choice in the school district.
“[The school district] approached us and asked me and my leadership team what we would like to do if we could do something and restructure,” Portillo said. “We asked the staff to look at what makes us unique and what’s not available at the other schools that will help bring in enrollment.”
After discussions between the staff and leadership team, the idea to create a science and technology academy emerged.
“Because we have the Ocean Institute and the ocean, it’s so natural to be focusing on science,” Portillo said. “At the same time, we said technology because it’s integrated into everything you do; they go hand in hand.”
The school staff spent the rest of last school year looking into what a science and technology academy could look like and what they would need to change in order to accommodate that vision. They came up with a three-year plan, met with an advertising agency, created a new logo and wrote a mission statement.
“We’re preparing kids for the future with an inquiry-based curriculum that fosters curiosity and technology-enabled problem-solving,” Portillo said. “Ultimately what we want to look at is creating these science experiments to find real world solutions, and using that technology to support real world research results.”
Although the academy doesn’t officially begin until the fall, students can currently be seen using Chromebooks, doing experiments in the labs and exploring the school’s gardens.
“We were able to purchase Chromebooks for every single student of all grades,” Portillo said. “In kindergarten, they’ve been using them since day one; first graders are learning how to do Google Slides.”
The school has two labs, a primary and an upper-grade lab, both fully stocked.
“We have a science aid that we hired, she helps do all the prep work, helps with the labs, orders supplies and makes sure we have everything that we need,” Portillo said.
Students are able to use wireless internet to support research for their classes and have access to a variety of programs to learn coding.
For the older kids, Portillo said the lessons will let them enter middle school with electronic portfolios of different projects and research they’ve done.
Portillo said she would like to see the school create an outdoor science learning lab in their gardens.
“It’s going to require working with the district, creating plans and getting them approved,” Portillo said. “We really want to have an outdoor seating area where classes can come outside and do their learning and do their lessons outdoors.”
She said she envisions the gardens having seats as well as whiteboards for the teachers, but it’s in the designing stages and has yet to be approved by the district.
The school received a two-year grant from the Ecology Center to assist with the garden and offer science curriculum lessons.
But the students aren’t the only ones learning new things. Teachers from R.H. Dana are participating in a pilot program with the Orange County Department of Education—a three-part training session on Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
“NGSS is newer standards, and they’re completely different than the science standards we’ve had in the past,” Portillo said. “So we needed to train the teachers on what the shift is involved with these new standards so they can apply it into the classrooms.”
NGSS is a curriculum that integrates science into all the disciplines.
“It’s not only isolating science, but looking at all areas of curriculum,” Portillo said. “We want to have that curiosity,
that wonder about problems and solutions. We want that to drive the kids’ education and to drive their learning.”
The school staff is also partnering with the Ocean Institute to design a program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade that will allow students to learn and explore a specific NGSS topic.
“It would result in a field trip, they will go to the Ocean Institute to learn about the topic, and then use that field experience to design an action research project,” Portillo said. “Then they’ll put it into motion, test their theory and then we would showcase it.”
Portillo said the school partnered with the Institute this year for the fifth graders, but she would like to see the program expand to the younger students.
To ensure the students aren’t going to be either behind other schools or way ahead of the game, Portillo said they meet with middle school and high school principals to discuss what type of lessons they teach.
“My staff went to Dana Hills to tour their outdoor garden and see what [students] can do and see that they can participate in these amazing hands-on programs,” Portillo said.
Another project the school is working on is a brochure to be given out to members of the community, Portillo said.
She said the staff is excited to begin the Academy and parents are as well. Previously, district staff have said the district believes investing in the schools will result in more families choosing the programs and returning to their neighborhood schools.
According to a presentation by CUSD, the school district will measure the success of the schools over the next three years by using student attendance, Smarter Balanced Assessments and parent and student surveys.