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‘I want Texarkana to continue to grow and thrive’

Key undertaking in district is to develop future engineers
  • Paul Norton • Superintendent • Texarkana (Texas) ISD
    Paul Norton • Superintendent • Texarkana (Texas) ISD

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Administrators' Corner

Introduction: A native of Texarkana, Texas, and a product of the public school system there, Paul Norton is fully vested. He served as principal at Texas High School eight years before taking over as superintendent of Texarkana ISD last summer. His vision is simple – improve the community by improving the schools. “We’re all better when we work together as a whole,” pretty much sums up his philosophy. Pitsco Education products used in the district include two Module labs, two Suite labs, and LEGO® Education robotics. Following are excerpts from a conversation with Norton conducted in the Suites Engineering lab at THS.

TPN: The Pitsco Network
PN: Paul Norton; Superintendent; Texarkana, Texas

TPN: Why is engineering so important in Texarkana?
We went to our community five years ago and said, “If we started an initiative, what would not only be good for the district but for the community?” In the area, we have Cooper Tire, International Paper, Domtar, and a large number of manufacturing plants. Their biggest struggle was finding engineers and finding engineers who knew how to communicate their mission and goal to others. They wanted an engineering program which taught not only the teamwork concept, but also the importance of communication. Honestly, that’s what brought us to this (Pitsco Suites Engineering course).

TPN: How does the Pitsco Suites lab address engineering at the high school level?
The Pitsco equipment is what makes the dream of what our community told us they needed to happen a reality. The kids split up to do their individual assignments, then work in partnership and present to the class. The collaborative piece is huge.

TPN: How have you funded STEM and engineering curriculum?
The Texas High School Project (THSP) has provided grants, and we continue to work with them. The THSP is an entity that is involved in STEM education and they have, over the years, given us $1.5 million. Last week, we found out we were awarded another $115,000 in a planning grant.

TPN: How many students experience the Suites Engineering course?
Right now we’re able to hit a pocket of kids, but we just don’t have the resources to expand it. Hopefully, we can expand so that all students get at least a component of it, even if they’re not interested in engineering or mathematics. All the kids love the technology aspect of it, and they don’t realize that when they’re doing that technology aspect, they’re doing math and science. It’s all tied up together.

TPN: You were personally involved in hiring Brandon Burnett to teach this course. Tell us about his background.
The teacher in the class is actually an engineer. We recruited him from Alcoa, a plant in town that shut down. His wife works in the district and she’s wonderful. He was looking for something and we were looking for somebody to take over this class. It was a perfect match. We helped him secure an alternative certification, and he has taken the program and just ran with it. He’s done an outstanding job. All the stars lined up when we needed them to. We hated it for Alcoa, but we loved it for us.

TPN: What do you hope students will get out of the course?
The big thing is the hook – to get them inspired, whether it’s engineering, math, or science . . . whatever it is. They might go through the class and realize that engineering may not be their forte, but what they do come to realize is that there is something in the course that they do like and suddenly say, “I want to do that,” whether it be the robotics component or something else.

TPN: Why have students shied away from engineering in the past?
A lot of it is just confidence. Kids are taught from a young age that math is hard, science is hard, stay away from it. No, it’s not. It’s a different thought process than English and social studies, but it’s not hard. You just have to think a different way. If kids get in here and do fun projects and collaborate, they then get the confidence to say, “I can do this.”

TPN: Are more females getting involved in STEM courses?
I want to say that at Texas High School, 55 percent of the STEM kids are female. It’s amazing how we’ve gone from starting off with probably 35-40 percent female to now they’re the majority. That’s a neat trend to see because it means we’re getting the young ladies who can be successful in these fields as well as math and science. From there, they can get a solid education and have a great future.

TPN: How do you know this program specifically and STEM in general are effective?
You know when you ask the kids, “If we took it away, what would it do to you?” I daresay that a majority of them would reply that they wouldn’t be interested in a STEM-type class. This is a hands-on, kinetic need these students feel. In the current age of technology, kids are used to an instant response or message. That is what STEM provides. They get an instant response from their colleagues, which in turn gives them hands-on experience that leads to success. Even if they do something and it’s wrong, they get a chance to fix it. It’s trial and error. You don’t get that in every subject.

TPN: How can you take STEM to the next level?
You have to fund your priorities. You fund what is successful for you, your kids, your community, your programs. This is a program we’re going to continue to fund. Whether we search for grants, do a push with Texas High School Project, or visit with Domtar or International Paper on different ideas and thoughts, we have great partnerships to assist and direct us as we move forward.

TPN: What are your impressions of students giving presentations in the Pitsco lab?
It shows that when a diverse group of students has a common goal, they can work together under any circumstances. It doesn’t matter what background you have. Whether the difference is socioeconomic or ethnicity, when you have a common goal and can work together, great things can happen and success will find its way. It’s the collaborative effort between every level of student that ultimately makes the program click and makes them feel successful.

TPN: Leadership seems to be a point of emphasis within the district. Is that by design?
Seven years ago, we initiated a leadership component to our graduation diploma which requires students to take at least one semester of a leadership class. The Suites lab has become the leadership component for many of our STEM-focused students. It is allowing them to gain real-world leadership as they would have in a warehouse or engineering environment where you collectively come to a common goal. When students gain confidence, they feel that they can lead and they then step out to take on the world.

TPN: What is your end goal for this engineering emphasis?
As Texarkana thrives, our school district thrives. When the school district thrives, our community thrives. They build off of each other. We want to develop a program in Texarkana where we start the engineering process as young as possible, even at kindergarten, and work all the way through the system. As soon as students graduate from TISD, they will attend Texarkana College and earn an associate’s degree and hopefully move on to enroll at Texas A&M University – Texarkana to finish their engineering degree. This final step will provide the workforce for the businesses we want to come to Texarkana.