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Hands-On Science,
New Friends Are
Magnet School's Draw

Wading into ponds, netting frogs and plant life, might sound like fun for a lazy summer day, but it's serious work at Two Rivers Magnet Middle School in East Hartford, Connecticut. The school, which has a hands-on science curriculum, brings together students from five communities to learn about research and one another. Included: Descriptions of a science-technology magnet school curriculum.

Field research and scientific analysis, complete with computer-generated charts and graphs, is every day work for scientists and soon-to-be scientists, but those activities are rare among schoolchildren. In Connecticut, however, some middle-schoolers already are getting their feet wet -- literally -- when it comes to scientific inquiry.

Teaching students from different backgrounds to conduct research using the latest technology is the central mission of the Two Rivers Magnet Middle School in East Hartford, Connecticut. Nearly 600 students in grades 6 to 8 are enrolled at the school, which opened in the fall of 2002. The youngsters, who are selected by lottery, come from five area school districts; three of them urban and two suburban.

"We have wide achievement goals; our student achievement [benchmarks] are based on the goals in five communities," said Principal David Pearson. "We want to close the achievement gap and build a diverse school environment. This is a unique opportunity; we're using technology in creative and unique ways."

A RESEARCHER'S DREAM

Geographically, Two Rivers is ideally situated for its scientific mission; the school was built between the Hockanum and Connecticut Rivers, near flood plains. "It's just an amazing location for field work," said Anne Bartoszuk, the school's community outreach coordinator. The curriculum stresses the environmental sciences, including the rivers' history, geology, and affect on the local quality of life.

"[At Two Rivers], every teacher's biggest goal is to teach to the range of abilities, and to show how science can be challenging at any level," continued Bartoszuk. "Science is approached differently here."

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Once every four weeks, for example, students take part in a Bio Blitz, a fieldwork day. Students might don waders and life vests, grab nets and buckets, and work outside for an extended class period -- gathering water, plant, and animal specimens to test the vitality of a pond, for example. Students then compose reports on the laptops assigned to each student and faculty member. "They are using technology to communicate information," Bartoszuk said of the students, who hope to test a pond in each of their five home communities before the year is done.

In some cases, the students' study results are sent to local and state agencies. "We are trying to make connections with outside organizations; we want to interact more with the outside," according to Bartoszuk. The school's motto, in fact, is "changing the world for good."

To facilitate the fieldwork, technology is integrated across the school's curriculum. Students use their laptops in conjunction with the electronic whiteboards teachers employ in the classrooms. Each room has a Tower of Technology, which includes a computer, printer, Web cam, video cassette recorder, and television.

The technical equipment, however, while at first an attraction -- and distraction -- for some students, now is viewed as just the contemporary cousin of three-ring binders. "Initially, the laptops were seen as a novelty, and there was some inappropriate behavior," Bartoszuk told Education World. "Now the students see them as just another tool, like notebook and paper." Some students even put stickers on their laptops, just as they might decorate traditional notebooks.

"Kids don't come here for laptops," Bartoszuk added. "That's just one small part of a bigger picture."

TRAINING INQUIRING MINDS

Two Rivers' teachers stress hands-on learning, inquiry, and analysis, an approach tailored to meet the learning styles of young adolescents. Besides their in-depth science work, students take all the core courses as well as some electives. Flexible block scheduling allows for 80-minute class periods; the schedule changes weekly, based on teachers' and students' needs. Members of the school's six teams meet every day. "You cannot be a hide-a-way teacher here," Bartoszuk said. "You cannot shut your door and do your own thing."

Mathematics teacher Robert Storozuk teaches a lesson using an electronic whiteboard at Two Rivers Magnet Middle School.
(Education World photo)

"We truly embrace the longer periods," mathematics teacher Robert Storozuk told Education World. "You get more out of students that way; the quality is better if you spend more time with them." During one 80-minute math period, for example, Storozuk's seventh graders used their laptops to create a Jeopardy-style game involving math questions.

Other subjects are approached differently as well. The school does not have athletic fields or after school sports, so the physical education program, called Project Adventure, stresses exploration, fitness, and self-improvement.

Fieldwork also goes beyond the school year. In the summer of 2003, 80 Two Rivers' students spent two weeks working with professors from Wesleyan University and Trinity College on a Connecticut River monitoring program. The group included some Hartford high school students who had worked with the professors before; they interacted with the younger children as well.

FROM COPAPODS TO AMPHIBIANS

Students in a sixth grade science class study specimens collected from vernal ponds.
(Education World photo)

At Two Rivers, getting hands and feet wet is a mandatory part of studying pond life. In a sixth grade science class one afternoon, students were busy eyeing plants and critters large and small -- including frogs and a snake -- through glass aquariums and under microscopes. The class collected the samples from vernal pools -- temporary containments of water -- on the school grounds.

"We're comparing these [samples] with specimens collected from another pool," Joe, 12 of South Windsor explained. "We're trying to identify the specimens based on what they look like."

Another student, Emma, 12, from Glastonbury, was tracking a copapod under a microscope -- something she described as "a tiny organism that can go really fast."

"I want to be a marine biologist, and this will help me with math and science," Emma said, explaining why she chose Two Rivers. "I like the school. I'm really into science and I'm fascinated by computers. Every day I find out more about computers."

Students participate in some type of science work every day, and they are curious, engaged learners, teacher Jane Callery told Education World. "It's different and exciting," she said of the school's approach. "It's invigorating to come to work every day, see what's discussed, and share with the children."

The students' technology comfort level also has grown. "Now technology is second nature to them," she said. "Some decide if they want to use their laptops or write or draw in their journals."

STRIVING FOR QUALITY AND DIVERSITY

Two Rivers' students also are learning to interact with people from different backgrounds and cultures.

A court decision prompted Connecticut to develop magnet schools. In the case of Sheff v. O'Neill, the parent of a student in Hartford's urban school district sued the state, claiming that her child's education was inferior to that of students in non-urban areas. As a result, the state now is under court order to voluntarily reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation among all students. The court was not specific, however, about how the state should reduce isolation; magnet schools have been the approach of choice so far. Two Rivers is one of three magnet middle schools in the state. Magnet schools are overseen by the Capitol Region Education Council, a regional educational service that facilitates programs among districts.

"My goal is to close the achievement gap [between ethnic groups]," said Pearson. "We have small classes and unique opportunities, such as a four-week summer program focusing on basic skills. We have a school-wide goal to improve reading. We have no control over what we get [in terms of ability]. It is up to me and my staff to be creative to meet student needs."

Each town is allowed to send 44 children per grade; in the first year, the school had 1,300 applications for 440 openings. In the fall of 2003, 600 students applied for the 220 slots. At the time Two Rivers was proposed, several of the sending districts were running out of space in their middle schools, so they were eager to participate. Two of the towns, South Windsor and Glastonbury, solved their space problems while planning for Two Rivers was underway, but remained involved in the project. "The five superintendents see it as working toward the future," Pearson noted."

According to Bartoszuk, however, Two Rivers is not the place for everyone. In addition to the absence of an athletic program, the school has a strict dress code, which bans jeans, t-shirts, and sweatshirts. Boys must wear slacks and collared shirts; the same rule applies to girls, although they have the option of wearing skirts no shorter than 4 inches above the knee.

ATTRACTIVE TO STUDENTS, TEACHERS

Several Two Rivers students who spoke with Education World, however, said the school definitely was the place for them. Frankie, 13, a seventh grader from Manchester, said his mother picked the school, but he is happy with her choice. "You get more opportunities and learn more about other people," he told Education World. "I like to draw and I get to do a lot with art. I also like the longer classes."

"I always wanted to go to a magnet school," added Catia, 13, a seventh grader from East Hartford. "I want to be a pediatrician; this school involves science and I love science. And teachers explain things better here."

She also is enjoying meeting new people. "I made a lot of friends," Catia told Education World. "The teams are small, so I'm getting to know kids I didn't know, from East Hartford and from other towns."

Ben, 11, a sixth grader from Glastonbury, said the only downside to attending Two Rivers is a long bus ride -- but it is worth it. "The school days go by so fast, sometimes I don't want to take a vacation," he said. "I really like science and I really like technology. I wanted to come. The laptop is a bonus. Plus, I made a lot more friends than I would have at home."

Even the dress code has fans. "I think it's better than other schools where kids run around in ratty t-shirts," said Joe, 12, a sixth grader.

The chance to teach students from different backgrounds also enticed experienced teachers to Two Rivers. "I loved the chance to work with a diverse population," said Storozuk, who taught in a middle school in South Windsor for ten years. "The classroom discussions are so rich; you get a range of views. This is getting back to teaching where I can make a difference."

"They work side-by-side with people they never met before," added Callery. "They are not afraid to ask questions."

Still, teaching to a diverse population requires some adjustments. "There are more sad stories here, which sometimes makes teaching a challenge," said Storozuk.

The state-of-the-art facilities and equipment also were an incentive for teachers to join the Two Rivers' team. "It was very exciting to hear the job description, involving hands-on science. And it's an opportunity to work with other creative, innovative people," Callery said. Storozuk agreed. "I was dying to get my hands on the technology; it's a chance to do things in a less traditional way," he said. "The technology affords greater opportunities -- it's a tool that will be here forever. We are using it here in good ways. It puts all kids on an equal basis."

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Keeping families involved in the school also is important to the Two Rivers' faculty, though working with parents in five communities can require some creativity.

"We pay for cabs to get parents to PTO meetings [conferences and activities]," Bartoszuk said. "We want parents to get to know the teachers as well as the kids do." Siblings of current students are automatically admitted.

The school also plans to add a health center. "We are here for the entire family," Pearson said.

LONG-TERM INVESTMENTS

The experience at Two Rivers will help students as they plan for their high school careers and beyond, added Pearson. "They will have more choices in high school -- they will be able to gravitate to courses that meet their needs. They will know what works for them.

"We're not trying to present ourselves as a better option, just a unique option," he added.

Two Rivers is an option whose appeal is growing. "In the first year, we had difficulty attracting students from (suburban) South Windsor and Glastonbury," Bartoszuk said. "Now it is easier. The word is out."

Sixth grader Ben said some of his hometown friends are showing interest in the school as well. "Now other kids want to come here -- now they see what I do, and not what I get."

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