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$5 million TTIPS grant paves the way

Proper planning and all parties pulling in the same direction – toward STEM – give San Diego, TX, elementary students hands-on, career-focused experiences

Published December 21, 2017

SAN DIEGO, TX – Call it a $5 million opportunity. Call it a chance to prepare students for their future careers. Call it a concerted effort. But whatever you do, don’t call it luck. The focused efforts of many administrators, staff, teachers, and students in San Diego, TX, have resulted in a revitalization rooted in STEM at Collins-Parr Elementary School.

The key word in that sentence is many. Only when all key players – from the superintendent to the paraprofessional – carry out their roles is it possible to achieve the transformation that is under way in this small independent school district about one hour west of Corpus Christi. San Diego, TX, is small, but the collective heart of its educators and residents is big. And so are the goals for what they hope a $5 million Texas Title I Priority Schools (TTIPS) grant can help them achieve at Collins-Parr.

Funding comes first, naturally, and a TTIPS grant was awarded in 2016 to provide resources over a four-year period in hopes of raising student performance at the academically struggling elementary school.

The funds have been used to purchase Chromebooks, tablets, summer reading camp materials, two STEM labs, and professional development for teachers and administrators. Pitsco Education was selected to outfit the two labs with K-2 STEM Units and the company’s new STREAM Missions for Grades 3-5, a science-laden cross-curricular program that develops students’ 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, career exploration, and problem-solving that are transferable and will serve them well for life.

Here’s how individuals at all levels have played key roles to ensure the Pitsco STEM labs are leveraged to maximize student benefit.


Dr. Samuel Bueno’s experience in the Navy taught him that teamwork is essential, so his leadership style is rooted in listening to all parties and building consensus.

“When we submitted the grant, we put together a team of teachers and administrators, so the buy-in started from the very beginning,” he said. “I learned a long time ago when I was a campus principal that you don’t just get an idea as an educational leader and try to jam it down a teacher’s throat.”

Bueno has made a habit of observing students in the lab, and he likes what he’s seeing. “I have not walked into the STEM lab, not once, where the kids aren’t just completely immersed and operating at a high level of engagement. . . . There’s an authentic play going on and they’re learning. There’s a lot of dialogue. I have this term that I call noisy good. It can be an extremely loud classroom, but there’s a lot of learning going on.”

As the leader within the district, Bueno now is working on a growth and sustainability plan to spread STEM to all grade levels. He has a personal stake in the game as his daughters are in high school. “Our school board is really supportive, and financially if I can put the budget together, they will approve it,” said the 17-year San Diego ISD veteran. “Our administrative team, we all have buy-in at the community level. I’m not here because I want to eventually move up to a larger district. I plan to retire here.”


Another district leader with a long-term vested interest in the community is Director of Educational Services Gracie Pizzini. She worked for 15 years in the district as a teacher, moved away to serve as a principal and a director at a regional service center, and then came back to San Diego with ideas for making things better.

“When I came back I was kind of, ‘What kind of opportunities are students missing out on?’” she said. “What can we offer our students to become a part of that global society where technology is driving everything? At the service center, I saw districts putting in robotics programs. I saw districts putting in STEM programs. And I came back here and we were not. So there was a great opportunity to advance math and science course offerings and we applied for the grant and we got it.”

The STEM labs, though, needed to be aligned seamlessly with math and science classes in order to be most effective, Pizzini reasoned. “I really wanted an aligned lab. That was important to me because we serve an 80 percent economically disadvantaged population. These kids need to be able to make connections with their learning, and hands on makes that happen. . . . I can tell you from last year’s common assessments to this year’s the level of achievement is much higher, and I attribute that to the hands on.”


Dr. Bueno knew that proper oversight was the only way to ensure the TTIPS grant would be carried out most effectively, so he tasked former Collins-Parr principal Yvonne Munoz with the assignment.

“Science has been a struggle here – low, low scores,” Munoz said. “Now we have a new science teacher and a STEM lab, and common assessment scores are nearing 70 percent. That’s pretty cool. Last year our state assessments were in the 40s for fifth grade. I can’t wait to see the benchmark that we take in February. If the scores are high, it’ll go to show that the additional time in the lab and the additional work in the classes is working.”


As the person held most responsible for ensuring that Collins-Parr turns out well-rounded students, Principal Monica Perez is most excited about the Pitsco curriculum’s development of multiple soft skills.

“I like that we’re making students become quicker thinkers. That way they are able to make adjustments quickly and move on,” Perez said. “They’re learning skills that they can use in any subject area going forward. . . . Sometimes as teachers and administrators we want to take over and not let students solve their problems. In the lab, the teachers facilitate and allow collaboration to occur.”

Even social and emotional learning skills are developed and sharpened. “Even in this first year of implementation, we’re getting a lot more students who are finding more confidence in themselves, and they’re ready to try new things and not be afraid of failure,” Perez added. “I want them to be ready for the next year, and I think this is going to assist them in that process.”


Amanda Morgan spent countless hours leading up to and during the first few weeks of this school year ensuring that the STEM lab content – STEM Units and STREAM Missions – was aligned with what all K-5 students were doing in their core classes. Every one of the school’s K-5 students spends two class periods per week in the lab, so Morgan’s task was monumental – but essential.

“I got the TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills] correlations for all of the Missions, and then I cross-referenced our scope and sequence, what teachers needed to teach every six weeks. So we kind of got the most bang for our buck doing these particular Missions,” Morgan said.


Kristella Laso is in her first year teaching fifth-grade science after serving the previous year as a math instructor. She couldn’t be happier to have students splitting their time between the STEM lab and her science classroom, completing closely aligned activities.

“Since they go to the lab on Mondays and Tuesdays, they’re exposed to lessons I’m going to be doing on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday,” she explained. “So they have that background knowledge versus if it was just random. Those kids make a connection and are more likely to remember it.

The design of the Pitsco curriculum and the collaborative approach also provide opportunities for students to hypothesize and then experiment further. Laso cited a solar car experiment earlier in the day when students explored how a lamp would power the vehicle and then how it would perform outside under the Sun. Then they had an idea.

“They wondered what would happen if they covered half the solar panel. The kids made that connection. They said it didn’t have enough energy,” Laso said. “They put that in their own words and went back into the classroom and jotted it down in their journals.”


The teachers and administrators admit that the STEM labs would not be as high functioning without the attention to detail from lab manager Jessica Trevino, a paraprofessional who ensures all materials and equipment are prepared and ready to go when classroom teachers bring their students to the adjoining labs.

“Any program that you want to be successful, the people running them have to be vested. They have to know the vision and why they’re doing this,” Pizzini said of Trevino.

As the overseer of a pair of labs used by 650 students per week, Trevino relied on the Pitsco-supplied professional development sessions to prepare her. “At the training I was just like, ‘How am I going to do this?’ But I got it that first week. I just like doing it with the kids. I learn stuff with them, so it’s perfect.”

Perhaps her favorite aspect of the lab is that students can try, fail, and try again without being penalized. “Earlier when they were working with shapes, a couple students said, ‘I can’t do this.’ We just kept telling them, ‘You just need to keep trying.’ And we tell them there is no can’t. You just need to do it. And they did it. You just have to encourage them.”

“When I saw it, it took me about 20 seconds to buy in. I understood it. It was hands-on science, it was high-tech, it was student responsibility. It was all the skills that we’ve talked about teaching but traditional labs will not allow.”

– Pat Taylor, headmaster, Jackson Academy, Jackson, Mississippi

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