Lab Work

Newark unveils state-of-the-art science center for students’ hands-on experiments

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students from Abington Avenue School conducted experiments at the S2S Newark Technology Center on Monday.

Newark students will now be able to conduct experiments alongside professional scientists in a new state-of-the-art science center housed in the district’s downtown headquarters.

The 10,000-square-foot center features six laboratories stocked with $4 million in mostly donated instruments such as chromatographs and spectrophotometers — costly equipment found in commercial labs but rarely accessible to students. All Newark eighth-graders will visit the center twice each school year, where full-time instructors and volunteers who are working scientists will lead them in hands-on science experiments. High-school students will also occasionally use the labs.

In addition, fifth through 12th-grade students will take part in eight “virtual” lab sessions each year where scientists lead students through experiments by live video. The students will remain in their schools while the instructors broadcast out of two studios located in the center at 765 Broad Street — the downtown building where Newark Public Schools recently moved its offices. Some science teachers will also come to the center for training.

The center, which was created through a public-private partnership between the district, the city, and the nonprofit Students 2 Science, reflects growing interest among policymakers and philanthropic groups in funding education in the “STEM” fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM boosters point to statistics showing that companies are adding high-paying jobs in those fields at a faster rate than other sectors, but often have a hard time filling them with qualified workers.

“There are all of these jobs opening up right here in the city of Newark, throughout New Jersey, throughout the nation,” Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said at the center’s unveiling on Monday. “It is our responsibility to prepare our students and ensure they have the skills needed to fill those positions.”

The center is a partial solution to the district’s struggles with science. Last year, 40 percent eighth-graders in Newark’s district schools passed the state science exams — compared to 74 percent of eighth-graders across New Jersey.

That may partly be due to challenges with school facilities. A 2010 report found that Newark’s “K-8 teachers are attempting to teach science without basic equipment such as faucets and sinks, lab tables, microscopes, and balances.” The report also said the district’s magnet high schools had better science facilities than its comprehensive high schools.

The center, dubbed the S2S Newark Technology Center, was established with $13 million from the district and private funders including Panasonic, PSEG, and Thermo Fisher Scientific. It will cost just under $2 million per year to operate, which will also come from a mix of public and private sources.

On Monday, Mayor Ras Baraka and Sen. Cory Booker spoke at its opening and the Panasonic Corporation of North America, which is based in Newark, announced a $1.5 million grant to support the center’s work.

Amid the celebration, eighth-graders from the North Ward’s Abington Avenue School were busy conducting experiments in the new labs.

Wearing white lab coats and protective eyewear, students in one lab measured the amount of antacid in a Tums tablet. In another, they used electroplating machines to shift the copper from pennies onto nickels.

“They really see what it would feel like to work in a laboratory,” said Fran Nelson, program director for Students 2 Science’s V-Labs and a trained chemist who previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry. “They’re using equipment that I used every day in my professional life.”

Some Abington Avenue students have previously conducted experiments in their classroom led remotely by a Students 2 Science instructor, but Monday marked their first visit to the labs. Eighth-grader Alexa Carangui said experiments at her school are limited by space and available equipment.

“In the classroom, sometimes you only get to see a teacher do it,” she said. “Here, I learn more.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education department will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That request will make Michigan the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests within a year of arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The stories hone in on the Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking Devos’ education department to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.