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New initiative at Fitch focuses on STEM education

Groton — The town school district has a new partnership intended to bolster the science, technology, engineering and math program at Robert E. Fitch High School and encourage participation among students historically underrepresented in the STEM fields.

The two-year College Readiness Program through the National Math and Science Initiative will help provide professional development and networking opportunities for Advanced Placement teachers and support to students, according to the school district.

NMSI is a nonprofit whose mission is to "ensure all students, especially those furthest from opportunity, thrive and reach their highest potential as problem solvers and lifelong learners who pursue their passions and tackle the world's toughest challenges," according to its website.

The U.S. Department of Defense provides funding to the organization to bring NMSI programs to schools in military-connected communities, such as Groton, which is home to the Naval Submarine Base, according to Ed Veiga, senior director for government and corporate relations for NMSI.

Groton Superintendent Susan Austin said the program aligns with the district's overall goal to encourage more students and more diversity in the highest-powered courses.

"Teachers usually get trained when they take on an AP course but they haven’t always had the opportunity to have continuous improvement," she said, "and so I really wanted the highest quality professional learning possible for them so that they could differentiate instruction and so that when we get more kids and a more diverse population, they’ll be able to meet their needs."

Shannon Weigle, the district's grants coordinator, said the teachers receive professional development and have access to an online portal to connect with teachers across the country, who also are working with military-connected and underrepresented students, and brainstorm ideas for classroom activities.

Veiga said teachers can reach out to a network of mentors across the country and find help on how to teach a certain aspect of physics, for example.

Megan Frayne, an AP computer science teacher at Fitch, said in a statement that networking with other teachers means she's "only ever an email away from answers to any questions" she or her students have. She said her students have told her that the material in her AP Computer Science Principle course "is extremely accessible and fun," and she credits the NMSI program for playing a large part in that.

Students at Fitch also have access to an online platform to receive coaching and to network with other students, Weigle said.

The program is focused on STEM, but teachers also will have other opportunities, such as in English, Austin said.

The program brings additional supports, such as help with reimbursements to eligible families for AP exam fees and funding for classroom supplies and equipment, she said.

Veiga said the program is intended to help schools grow and develop the rigor of AP STEM courses and ensure students have the supports needed to help increase enrollment and participation in those courses.

A news release cites that students in the program at schools in military communities "average a 45 percent increase in mastery of college-level concepts in math and science — compared to the national average increase of 5.6 percent. That increase is 81.5 percent for Black students, 34 percent for Latinos and 38.4 percent for females."

The program is at no cost to the Groton school district. While 10% of their students need to be from military families in order for schools to be eligible for the program, all students can participate in it, Veiga said.

"Our intent is to leave schools with an environment for AP STEM that they can sustain," he added.

Rebecca Beyus, communications specialist for the district, said schools still have control over the curriculum but the program provides consistency for military families moving from place to place.

Veiga said the top concern for military families is consistently finding rigorous educational opportunities for their kids. Spousal employment is another top concern, with many states stepping up to modify certification requirements to make it less challenging for spouses to find work when families move to a new state.

Department of Defense STEM Director Louie Lopez noted in a statement that the DOD has internships and career opportunities "across its branches, including uniformed and civilian roles" in the department's laboratories that require STEM skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving. "Those skills also set the foundation for success across other careers and personal endeavors," he added.

“Naval Submarine Base New London and Southeastern Connecticut, as a hub for submarines, shipbuilding, undersea technology, and blue-tech, know well the need for highly qualified STEM talent," Capt. Kenneth Curtin, commanding officer of the Navy installation in Groton, said in a statement. "This partnership and program ensures not only children of military families, but all students at Fitch High School, have access and opportunity for achievement in STEM; and, as a community, Navy, and nation, we will all benefit.”

k.drelich@theday.com

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