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Episode 44: Students Devote Summer to Computer Science, Statistics and Problem Solving as Part of Unique Program

It is not the typical summer of rest and relaxation for some middle school students in Jordan School District. That’s because they are immersed in things like abstract reasoning, problem-solving and computer science. In this episode of the Supercast we are going to explore something called the Pre-freshman Engineering Program (PREP), which is an academically rigorous mathematics-based summer enrichment program. Learn how it gives students an opportunity to start earning college credit at a very young age.


Audio Transcription

Superintendent Godfrey:
Welcome to the Supercast. I'm your host, Superintendent Anthony Godfrey. It's not a typical summer of rest and relaxation for nearly 100 middle school students at Jordan School dDistrict. That's because they are immersed in things like abstract reasoning, problem-solving and computer science. In this episode of the Supercast, we're going to explore something called the Pre-Freshmen Engineering Program or PREP, which is an academically rigorous mathematics-based summer enrichment program. Find out how this program is giving students the opportunity to earn college credit at a very young age. Our guest today is Stacy Pierce, who started the PREP program for students in Jordan School District. Stacy, thanks for joining us.

Stacy:
Glad to be here.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Jordan PREP is the first program, and you are the first person I highlighted with the Board as Superintendent. I get to do a little Superintendent highlight at the beginning of the meeting, and I think it was maybe two weeks before my first meeting. I saw you the culminating event for Jordan PREP last summer, and I bumped the person I already had scheduled. I put you on the agenda just because I was so impressed with your program. So, thanks for talking about it today.

Stacy:
Thank you, I loved it. Thank you for inviting me back.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Give us just an overview of what Jordan PREP is about.

Stacy:
I'd be happy to. Jordan PREP is a program that targets under-represented students. We start recruiting students from the sixth grade. We don't talk to parents, we only talk to students. So the students self-select for this program and they enter in sixth grade and now, believe it or not, they're going to exit in 12th grade. At the time we started recruiting last year, it was a three year program. They invest six weeks of their summer vacation and they choose to study logic, physics, computer science, engineering, statistics, algebraic structures, computer programming, and technical writing. We are in our third year of this program for the Jordan School District. We're the only school district in the Nation with this program. Now, this program has been around 40 years, but in general, it's supported by colleges, not by school districts. So it's a very, very exciting program. We love it. And we're doing it online this year and, believe it or not, we love it online. So that's Jordan PREP.

Superintendent Godfrey:
I'm really interested in hearing how it has transitioned to the online experience. But,  one of the things I thought was particularly impressive about the program as you described, it is the number of guest speakers that you involve to inspire the kids and give them some vision for what they can do with their lives.

Stacy:
I'll tell you, the guest speakers this year have been knocking it out of the ballpark, but every single year I say that. So we try to get a representative population of career speakers. There are a very diverse population of career speakers, men, women of all ethnic diversity, that come and speak to our students. And when we're in-person, we do it every single day. And when we are online, we've done it twice a week. Believe it or not, it's been as effective online as it has been in person. So these speakers come from all areas of STEM. They come from medicine, they come from the natural sciences. They come from engineering. We've had ornithologists come and bring a peregrine falcon. We've had bat specialists come and bring that little itty bitty schools. We've had engineering from every single discipline. We have the University of Utah Games, masters program professor coming this week. We've had presidents of companies. We've had lawyers, we've had bankers, from every discipline that touches on STEM. We've had common inspire our students. It's a big part of the program. Probably hard work is the biggest part of the program. And right next to it would be those career speakers and our teachers and our teaching assistants, inspiring our students and coming from a very diverse background.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Why do you think it's so important for them to hear from people who have found success?

Stacy:
Well, the number one thing, I think, is they not just talking about their success, but they talk about their failures. They talk about their challenges. They talk about their struggles and a lot of these students have all of the above. Our last speaker was a lawyer and a student asked, "Did you ever think about quitting law school?" And she said, every single day. But the thing that inspired me was something very negative. Somebody said that to me and it rang in my head every single day. And I though, now, wait a minute. I am smart. I do deserve this because I work hard. And so every single speaker brings that to the table for our students. Not just their success and what their career looks like today, but how they got there and their journey.

Superintendent Godfrey:
I love that, and I sensed from the kids, when I saw the culminating event, you expect a lot of them.

Stcy:
I do. Fortunately, sometimes it's our hardest life experiences bring us the farthest. I just put six kids on probation, right? So this online school, I should just be grateful that they show up. But that's not good enough.  They're expected to keep up with their work. They're still expected to be on time every day, they're expected to be participating and they have to be on their cameras. We have to see their faces every day so that we get a chance to build that tribe. My expectations haven't lowered this summer. In fact, maybe they're higher, right? So these kids need to push through this. It's midterms and we'll be at the end of the program in just two weeks. And I think every single one of them will meet those high expectations. We're not lowering our expectations just because it's online. They know it, they sign up, they are rising to the occasion, just like they did before.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Well, it's the best example I can think of, of how high expectations brings the best out in students, because implicit in that is that you believe in them.

Stcy:
We do, we absolutely do. We had one student show up today and he stayed online with all the teachers. I said, are you comfortable talking to all of us? And he said, "Yes, I want to know if the reason you're kicking me out of Jordan PREP is because of football". And I said, "No, absolutely not. You're not on time. You missed and you're missing assignments and I need you to be the very best version of yourself. And I believe you can. You're not kicked out of Jordan PREP. You're given an opportunity to become the best version of yourself that you possibly can. I know you can do it. All of these TA's know you can do it. We're here for you. You just tell us what we have to do to help you be successful because we know you can." So, that's what we do.

Superintendent Godfrey:
It's obvious they get the message. I can't think of a more inspiring meeting I've been in with teachers and students interacting. And, um, it was just really apparent to me that you had made a permanent impact in their lives.

Stacy:
Well, we ended that conversation with we love you and, and he said, thanks for being the best. And I know that on Monday, every single one of his assignments will be done because we truly care about these kids and they know we love them and it's through love and holding those expectations high that I believe that these kids are going to change the world. I truly believe that.

Superintendent Godfrey:
I don't doubt it for a second. Tell me more about the rest of the staff.

Stacy:
Oh, I'd be happy to. I try very, very hard to make my staff as diverse as my population of students are. I have an amazing staff of both teachers and teaching assistants. The teaching assistants generally come from the college population. These are young people that bond closely with these students. I have an engineering student from Salt Lake Community College. He just graduated from Salt Lake Community College and on one of our field trips to Merit Medical, we were able to provide him with a job. So now, on the weekends, he works at Merit Medical, through the week, thank heavens, he works for us. And he's a young, hispanic man named Renee. And we all hope and pray that he doesn't become an engineer and that he actually becomes an educator. There's no question about it, but someday I do think he'll return to the world of education because he is such a powerful influence on our students.

In addition, we have  two Hispanic teachers. mr. Baez was the Teacher of the Year for Jordan, at Western Junior High or Middle School. And he's a phenomenal problem-solving teacher, but all of our teachers are absolutely amazing. And all of our teaching assistants are absolutely amazing and they're such an inspiration to the students. There's nothing they won't do for these students. They're incredible.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Well, great people get attracted to a great program like that and the chance to really make a difference in the lives of students. Speaking of that, you talked earlier about hoping that Renee stays an educator instead of becoming an engineer and you did things in the opposite order.

Stacy:
Yes, I do. I do think that Renee will go into engineering ,as I did.  I spent 30 years in the world of engineering. I was a Principal eEngineering Manager at a company called Rockwell Collins, formerly Evans and Sutherland.  We worked on flight simulators for the military, as well as the commercial airlines. It was a phenomenal career. There wasn't a day that I didn't enjoy myself, or I didn't learn something. But when my father passed away, and he was an educator on the Navajo Reservation. I decided that it was time to become an educator myself. I had an education degree in math, computer science and statistics, but I never used it until 30 years later. And that's when I joined the field of education and was fortunate enough to get a job at West Jordan Middle School. I always knew that I wanted to start a program to help under-represented students and pave their path to careers in STEM. So I found the PREP program and brought it to Jane Harward and she found the funding from Boeing. And here we are. We have five additional years of funding from Merit Medical, and we just won a National Science Foundation Grant to extend it through high school. It's been a dream come true.

Superintendent Godfrey:
You've had donors dying to be a part of this that have really wanted to be associated with this program, after they see what a great impact it has on students.

Stacy:
Right. So, to quote Fred Lampropoulos, he said, "This is my hood. These are my students. I'll do anything I can to support this program". So there's a real bonding to our neighborhood, our family, our tribe. And when you have a program that has the magic components that make students want to literally give up their summer and not hang out with their friends for six weeks to study math, that's insane. Who does that? Right? And we don't ever talk to a parent until the mandatory meeting. We never speak to a parent. These kids are the ones who want to better their lives and better the lives of their families.

Superintendent Godfrey:
It's empowering. And it's focused on students beginning to end.

Stacy:
Exactly. Hopefully, we'll be able to get very close to an Associate's degree in technical engineering by the time they finish high school, so they're on their way, their path is paved. They've got the analytical skills, the problem-solving skills to truly make a difference in this world. These are the kids that are going to solve the COVID problem. These are the kids that are going to solve the rest of the problems that are out there that yet need to be solved.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Absolutely. And when you see that you've been underserved, but now you prove yourself in a program like this, nothing is too daunting.

Stacy:
Nothing is too daunting. There's nothing, these students can't do.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Stay with us. When we come back with what parents need to know about getting their students involved in PREP.

(13:59):
Do you want to know what's going on in Jordan School District? Get updates on the latest information that could impact you and your child, or just find an uplifting story about the good things happening in schools throughout the District. Check out our website at jordandistrict.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter at Jordan District.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Stacy, what role do parents play? I know that you don't talk with parents immediately when students are signing up for the program, but ultimately, what part do parents play in student success?

Stacy:
You know, there's no way that students can be successful in Jordan PREP without that parental support. So, historically, the parent's responsibility was to make sure that the students had a ride to Jordan PREP and a ride home. And if they didn't, we tap into the village and find them a ride to PREP and a ride home. They also have to encourage the students to make sure that their work is done and make sure that they are loving and supporting them and encouraging them to stay up on their work. In addition, a lot of students need to take care of their little brothers and sisters during the summer. That means that the responsibility is back on parents to find additional support for those little brothers and sisters.

Now, with it being online, the parents need to provide a quiet environment. We did provide heads headphones with microphones for each student, but the distractions can be great. The parents have been wonderful at eliminating those distractions. We've had grandmothers sit in their classes with their students all day long. It's been absolutely beautiful to watch that, you know, a grandma of one of our Polynesian students just learning right alongside of him and enjoying the program right alongside of him. It's been absolutely beautiful. So the parents are critical part of PREP.

And when we have the unfortunate situation where we have to put a student on probation and encourage them to catch up and continue to be a part of the program, it's the parents that come and say, thank you. We support you. We understand you're not going to lower those standards and we don't want you to. So we've had phenomenal support, even in those difficult situations from our parents. They're just amazing.

We've had mothers go back to school and finish their high school degree because their children are in PREP and they want to show their children that they want to go learn, and they want to be better themselves to encourage their students to continue and be an example to them. So it's kind of a full circle situation with parents. Believe it or not, a full circle where the students are doing something really hard encourages their parents to go do something really hard and makes their students proud of them.

Superintendent Godfrey:
The impact can be immediate, in a lot of ways.

Stacy:
It really can. It absolutely can.

Superintendent Godfrey:
When you presented to the Board, there were some stunning statistics that you cited about what happens when someone goes into the PREP program. And I'm not going to ask you to come up with those off the top of your head, but really, students who would have very little chance statistically of graduating from college, suddenly going through this program have a very high chance of graduating from college and well beyond.

Stacy:
Oh, absolutely. I actually, I can  quote those too. With the population that we serve, of over 50% minority, over 50% girls, 71% are on free lunch. So they are low income. And 68% of the students do not have a parent who either graduated from high school or went to college. That's our demographics. So with that demographic, you would expect 15% of these students to go to college and less than 5% of them to actually graduate. The PREP program did not start with Jordan PREP. It started 40 years ago in Texas, and they've gathered those statistics. It turns out that the kids willing to invest their summers are not losing their skills over the summer. They're gaining mathematical ability. 90% of PREP students go to college.  From that 90% that go to college, 68% graduate from college and from that 68%, 64% actually take the difficult path in my opinion, which is to graduate in a STEM career.

Now of that 68%, 57% are minority and 64% are girls. So, if you think about this 40 years ago, girls pursuing degrees in STEM, that's unheard of. The statistics statistics are what drew me to this program. I spent six months studying STEM programs out there, deciding if I wanted to join an existing program, which is always better because you don't spend the money creating it, or start a new program. There was no reason to start a new program. This program had the success statistics. That made sense. That  is what I wanted to be a part of.

Superintendent Godfrey:
It's staggering, how this reverses the pattern and changes lives that we know otherwise may not have access to the resources that they now see as something that is within their grasp.

Stacy:
Absolutely. So the second they joined the program, these kids know what they're a part of and what they're a part of is a path to success. And that is probably why we have only lost one student from our third year class. All the students that joined us the first year, we've only lost one student, and that was because of extracurricular activities. They just decided, and that's the beautiful, right, that extracurricular activities would not allow them to focus enough on the program to be successful in both. And that's totally understandable, totally supportive of that student's decision. But students want to better their futures and they want to better the futures of their family. They know that this program has all of the key components to help them.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Are there specific stories you could tell us about individual students?

Stacy:
Oh, absolutely. Our first year, and I get so teary eyed every time I tell this, a student lost her father and we only allow three absences in the summer. We always tell the students that you can always go to school, but you can't always be a part of PREP. You can miss three times, that's it. So if you feel like you need to go out for a week, this isn't the program for you because you're not going to be able to come back. After that week long vacation, we just cover too much material every single day. But, the first year, we had a little girl who lost her father from brain cancer. And, of course, we told her that she is more than welcome to miss as long as she needed to miss in order to help her through that time.

But two days later, not three but two days later, she was back and  as one of our strongest students. And she's still with us today. There are so many stories of the resilience of these students and their commitment to this program and their ability to bounce back. Some from things that I could never have bounced back from at that age. We had a student that left because of medical reasons to go back to Taiwan for medical treatment for a year, she came back this year and she's on her way, moving to South Carolina. But every morning her parents wait until PREP is over and then they get back on the road. The next morning, they're in a different hotel and they wait until PREP is over and they're back on the road. So she didn't just say, I'm sorry, I'm moving to South Carolina. She made sure and her parents made sure that she could continue to be successful in our program. So, true resilience from these kids. They touch my heart every single day.

Superintendent Godfrey
It just, it's impossible for me to describe how proud I am of the work that you're doing and how thrilled I am to have you in Jordan District.

Stacy:
Well, we couldn't do it without your support. So thank you so much for being supportive  of a program that is my dream come true and is definitely changing the lives of our students.

Superintendent Godfrey:
When I first met you, our students in Jordan PREP made so much progress in the program. There wasn't anywhere for them to go next. They go back into regular programs and there wasn't a next step. Isn't that true?

Stacy:
That is so true. And so now we're so grateful that last year, after our closing ceremony, that you came to and we're so grateful that you were there, the head of the Engineering Department at Salt Lake Community College was also in attendance. I had been courting him for four years when I came to work for Jordan School District. I wanted to start the program with Salt Lake Community College because that's the natural fit. Sure. They were in flux of leadership at that time and it didn't work out. But after he sat through that closing ceremony and looked into the faces of our students and saw the diversity and the population of our students and the families, and really got to feel our tribe, he came back and said, "Let's write a grant together for National Science Foundation and extend this through high school."

Without that ladder for the kids to climb, there's a possibility we'd lose a few. There is always a possibility we'll lose a few. So we wrote a grant with Salt Lake Community College, and believe it or not, the first day of online PREP, we found out that we had received that grant with Salt Lake Community College. Now our students will extend to a fourth year in the summer and do a Capstone Pro Project of their choosing. And then their junior and senior years, there'll be over on the Salt Lake Community College Campus, taking college classes and graduating with at least their certification, if not their Associates degree in Engineering Technology. And that particular degree feeds into Weber State University, manufacturing and engineering seamless. They'll also graduate with a small scholarship to help them continue their education and the ability to make money, decent money while they're going to college. So, it's a beautiful transition we have now.

Superintendent Godfrey:
So how many students are currently involved?

Stacy:
We have 96 students online this summer.  We had to pay for a Zoom, professional license that will handle 500 because there's 100 to 500, all online. They are all on their cameras. We see their beautiful faces every single day. And with my staff and with the speakers, we're well over a hundred. Four our closing ceremony, we'll invite grandparents, we'll invite aunts and uncles, and we hope to use all 500 spots for our closing ceremony.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Well, please reserve one for me.

Stacy:
You got it. Of course.

Superintendent Godfrey:
I would love to be a part of that again. I don't think I'll ever miss it again.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Well, thank you so much. We don't ever want to miss it again. Tell me what was the transition to doing this online like?

Stacy:
Oh, it was very interesting. Every single PREP Program in the Nation, did their own thing. We had a choice and I felt very privileged that I had been able to do online teaching prior to making the decision of what PREP would look like. And so, as an online teacher, I taught a normal class three times a day, once during the time slot I was allotted and two in the evening for those students that had to go to work. What I found is that I had students that were coming to all three classes, even though they knew the answers, the very first class of the day, and they were doing it for the social interaction. So I knew that we had to keep that component in PREP. What we do is online teaching live for 30 minutes, and then we have a social engagement for 30 minutes and then back to online teaching for 30 minutes.

Superintendent Godfrey:
So what happens during the social engagement?

Stacy:
They'll bring their pets to school, have Spirit Days where they have funky hats or funky socks, or we say, "I spy with my little eye", something in your background that helps us get to know you better. So the social engagement and the building of the tribe is still in effect and building those relationships because they don't come from one school. They come from all of our Title I schools and so we have to be able to build those relationships and then learn. And they say that you learn 75% faster if you're actually having fun. So that's the fun component of PREP that we've been able to maintain. And then on Fridays, we go on virtual field trips because we can't go on real field trips. We go on virtual field trips with the component of our program. There is gratitude. We write thank you notes to our speakers. They can also write thank you notes to their family or to one of the teachers or TA's. So, we've kept the component of gratitude alive. And then we do robots. We built robots the rest of the time and they struggle building those robots and they learn through that struggle. So we've kept all of the components of PREP, the hard work, the inspiration, the fun, the building of the tribe and the gratitude all alive.

Superintendent Godfrey:
What an incredible program. That's fantastic. Maybe you could read the sentence what you have posted up behind you, of learning things about you from your background, the mathematics quote strikes me there.

Stacy:
I could click search and then I select quotes for them to decorate my classroom the first year that I was a teacher. And I thought, even on those bad days, I can look at these pictures of nature and these inspirational quotes and I'll be okay. One says, "Mathematics is not only for solving numbers. It's for dividing sorrows, subtracting sadness, adding happiness and multiplying love and forgiveness".

Superintendent Godfrey:
Well, I think that's a great summary of what happens in Jordan PREP.

Stacy:
I do too.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Hey, Stacy, I've heard tell of a Swag Wagon. Tell me about that.

Stacy:
Well, industry is very kind to us, as well as businesses. Once you tell them the story of Jordan PREP, they've been incredibly generous and we always have a Swag Table and we reward kindness. We reward our Student of the Week. We reward the best note taking for the week, but this year we can't have a swag table. So I made my car into a Swag Wagon and every window of my car has words, such as PREP Strong. So our logo this year, our slogan is PREP Strong because it's difficult to go to PREP online. And instead of little gears, we have little COVID viruses on our T shirts and on my car. It says,  Jordan's Wagon. It says PREP Strong. It says, Believe in Yourself. It says Computer Science, Statistics, Physics. Every window is decorated. I drive up to the houses and I interrupt the students from class. And those students that have been selected by their TAs and their teachers come out and select something from the swag in the Jordan Wagon. It's a lot of fun to visit those students at home. In fact, you should come some day. It is a treat to visit their homes and see how much pride their parents have and their brothers and sisters have. They all run out of the house and there's three doors worth of swag that they have to weed through and select what it is that they want. I had one student, yesterday, who would not leave class. His brother kept saying somebody at the door for you.  And he would not leave class, he's the Student of the Week. This wagon has been just a lot of fun.

Superintendent Godfrey:
That's amazing. I would love to join the Swag Wagon. Let me know. I'll hit the road with you. Thank you so much for spending time with us and for the wonderful things you do for our kids.

Stacy:
Well, thank you and thank you for your support. And I'm grateful to my amazing staff and my amazing students.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Please thank everyone for me. And I will definitely be there for graduation.

Stacy:
Perfect. I'll send you an invite right away.

Superintendent Godfrey:
Thanks for joining us on the Supercast. And remember, education is the most important thing you'll do today, even though it's summer, we'll see out there.

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