Laurel's superintendant John McCoy wants district's focus to be on STEM

"You've got to have a focus, a reason for teaching what you're teaching. The 21st century is all about science, technology, engineering and math. We are teaching our children 21st century skills."
- John McCoy

John McCoy believes that every school district needs an identity; something for which it is known and that sets it apart from other school districts. The Laurel School District, he said, didn't have a strong identity when he started as its superintendent last August. "There was a lot of support for sports and there was a good music and drama program, but not really a strong identification factor for the district," he said. But following a resolution passed by the school board in early spring, that has changed. "STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is now our district focus," said McCoy. "We are changing as much as we can to build our STEM focus in kindergarten through grade 12." Laurel is the only school district in Delaware that has embraced science and math as its focus. It is partnering with the Fairfax County (Va.) School District in developing a STEM-centered program. But that doesn't mean that its English and history classes are out the window. The district is asking teachers of all subjects and on all grade levels to schedule one STEM activity a year. That could mean a science fair arranged by science classes, reports on the science fair assigned by English teachers and impressionistic collages of the fair assigned by art teachers. As part of that STEM focus, Laurel High School is starting an after-school robotics class, in which students will construct robots and participate in competitions. This goes hand in hand with McCoy's plan to "ratchet up the rigor" of learning at the high school. "We owe it to our kids to prepare them for life outside of Laurel," he said. All of this, McCoy said, is geared toward making the Laurel School District an attractive option in these days of school choice. He also hopes that it boosts state test scores, something that he had success doing at previous school districts. "We hope that by integrating engineering and technology into the classrooms, we will engage students in their learning," he said. "Students who drop out of school often complain that they are bored. This will help provide the opportunity for students to be more engaged in their education and for what they are learning to be exciting and real to them." The district is a member of the National STEM Coalition, which provides guidance and resources for setting up classroom activities and which directs schools toward funding sources. Already, the Laurel district has joined forces with the state Department of Education and Department of Transportation to enable students to study the construction of the new bridge at the Indian River Inlet. Students will visit the construction site and study facets on the building process, including design and ecological impacts. Students in summer school are benefiting from the purchase by the DuPont Co. of a program, "Outside of the Box," which presents new ways of thinking about math. As part of the program, students built bridges out of pasta and measured how much weight the bridges could hold. The district is part of a University of Pennsylvania training and assessment program for middle school science classes. Only two other schools in the state, one of which is a charter school, are participating in the $10 million program. In addition, the district has joined with the University of Delaware's Southern Delaware Professional Development Center, which will help to develop STEM content in the high school. "You've got to have a focus, a reason for teaching what you're teaching," McCoy said. "The 21st century is all about science, technology, engineering and math. We are teaching our children 21st century skills." McCoy anticipates that the district's enthusiasm for its new focus will spill over into the community, especially as teachers and students start planning science and math fairs. He also hopes that his district-wide character education program generates excitement in the community and draws its people together.

McCoy, with the help of his principals, has selected 12 character traits, one for each month of the year, that he wants students to demonstrate. Among them are fairness, respect and perseverance. July's character trait is citizenship; August's will be patience. The character word of the month will be posted throughout town: on the sign in front of The Insurance Market, for example, at the fire hall and at Bargain Bill's. It will also appear on correspondence from the towns of Laurel and Bethel. "I believe this approach to character education will work for the betterment of the school community," McCoy wrote in a letter to the town of Bethel, in asking for its cooperation.

The move to Laurel
In the 12 months he has been in Laurel, McCoy has put his stamp on the school district. That's a habit he developed early in his career, when he was employed by the parochial school system of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. After teaching U.S. and world history and religion at the Highland View Academy, a boarding school in Hagerstown, Md., he was tapped by the school system to help wherever there was a problem. "They moved me around, to help with discipline or with academics, whatever they needed," McCoy said. He was with the parochial school system for 16 years, then decided that he would like to try public schools. After a year of substitute teaching in Denver, he moved to King George, Va., to accept a position as elementary school principal there. He helped to boost test scores, then was asked by the elementary school in Stafford, Va., to come there to help it get its state accreditation. In two years under McCoy's leadership, test scores were up sufficiently that the school was certified by the state. McCoy then went to the District of Columbia Public School System, where he was school performance officer for its high schools, all 23 of them. "The D.C. schools were divided into six divisions and my district had the highest aggregate test scores of them all," McCoy said. "I really felt that I was making an impact there." McCoy was then asked by the superintendent of the Chester Upland School District in Chester, Pa., to help that school district, which at the time was threatened with state takeover, get back on track. He accepted a position as chief administrative officer in December 2005 and worked with that district until coming to Laurel. In his last year there, he was the district's human resources officer. McCoy said that he and his wife, Janette, love the Laurel community. They live in Bethel and make it a point to attend as many school events as they can. "We love the kids here," McCoy said. "There is a different spirit here among the children, courteousness and good manners, that we have never noticed anywhere else." McCoy, who is 57, believes that Laurel may be the school district from which he retires. "What this district needs I've been able to accomplish in other districts," he said. "There is a great spirit here among the teachers and pockets of excellence in the district that we will be building on. But it takes time to get things up and going. I want to put in at least five years here, and then maybe even continue past five years, if the board and community will let this old New Yorker stay.""

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