TAMPA — On a Tuesday evening, a roomful of Just Elementary students left Charlie Dittmar, an outreach instructor from the Museum of Science and Industry, impressed.
They correctly fielded his questions about atmospheric pressure and air, temperature and states of matter.
“Wow,” he said. “You guys are great. You’re really smart.”
Dittmar ran one of the displays at Just’s Family STEM night, an event the school has put on to showcase some of their recent STEM initiatives — science, technology, engineering and math — from coding mice to robotics, in an effort to change public perceptions about the school.
“I noticed a lot of the kids have very good, well-thought-out answers, which tells me there’s a good science curriculum here,” he said. “That makes me excited. It brings back the ‘wow factor’ for what we can show them.”
Dittmar used a leaf blower to levitate an inflated beach ball, and he asked the students what they thought was responsible for the trick.
“Gravitional pull,” one guessed.
“The volume of the ball,” another said.
It was a principle named after some guy in France, Dittmar told them, which makes faster moving air have low air pressure and slower moving air have high air pressure. Bernoulli’s Principle. He showed them again and the ball fell, the room erupting into laughter.
“Not everyone can come by the museum,” Dittmar said. “When kids learn about new ideas right next to their parents, guess what they talk about on their way home?”
Last fall, when Kevin McDonald came to Just Elementary as its new principal, the numbers didn’t add up to him. His school was at 44 percent capacity, with only 266 students.
He knew that many residents had been displaced after demolition of the North Boulevard Homes public housing complex, and the school had lost some students. But he didn’t think it would be quite so many. So he requested numbers from the Hillsborough County School District that confirmed his suspicion: many students living within the school zone had been opting out for other schools.
“A lot of kids choiced out of that area because it was a high-needs area,” McDonald said. “Without having any scientific evidence, I believe people really buy into a negative narrative about a school. That nothing good is happening at these schools.”
The school had been rated as a “F” school in 2014, before becoming a “D,” “B” and “C” in subsequent years. It is listed as having a 99 percent Economically Disadvantaged Rate.
Terms like “at-risk” and “Title I” don’t help, McDonald said.
So he began what he called a “reverse marketing campaign” to bring students — and their parents —back to the school by advertising the rebranded Riverwalk STEM Academy @ Just Elementary.
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“Just try it,” McDonald said. “That’s what I’m asking parents and families to do when coming back to Just. It’s time that we have a reawakening to what the neighborhood school can offer.”
The district, he said, has committed their support: coding mice, lego EV3 robots, 3D printers, 106 new desktops, 30 new laptops, new furniture and painting the outside of the school.
Patricia Williams, a Headstart teacher, has been at the school since 2005. She said she’s optimistic about what she’s seen in the last year.
At the Headstart level, hands-on Legos and building activities have been incorporated into the curriculum.
“It’s so interesting to watch (the kids’) minds,” she said. “It’s going to put that desire for learning back into this school. ... If kids are going home and they’re excited, the parents are going to get excited.”
Desiree Whitter, who has a son in second grade, said her son has been going to school at Just since Kindergarten. She’s been encouraged by what she’s seen with after-school events.
“It’s been a good change,” she said. “The parents are definitely more engaged, and the kids — they love it. The perception is changing and that’s largely due to the transition in the area. Since the area is transitioning, everything around it is changing.”
Her advice to other parents: “Don’t let the area scare you away."
Williams said the stigma about the area often jades the perception about the students at the school.
“The growth and excitement is really going to be good for this community,” Williams said. “It’s not that they can’t learn, but that they haven’t been exposed to a lot of things. And now they’re being exposed.”
When they bring robotics, she said, “it’s going to be off the chain.”
The school also offers engineering and robotics clubs that meet after school.
Amanda Crane, the school’s STEM Coordinator, came to Just along with McDonald. She said part of the challenge of changing outside perceptions is making sure teachers and students inside the school believe that anyone can excel at STEM.
Incorporating STEM into every part of the curriculum exposes students to careers in engineering or science they may not have previously considered, she said.
“I think sometimes there is a stigma around Title I schools that our students can’t do or achieve, and it’s not true,” Crane said. “If they’re presented with those same opportunities, they absolutely can if not more because they have that drive to get out of a situation.”
Whether the initiatives work will be a test of time, McDonald said.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “We have a lot more that needs to happen. But for our first year, we’re doing a lot.”