Bertie STEM reaches new heights

Published 8:53 am Tuesday, April 6, 2010

WINDSOR – It is heralded as one of the best schools of its kind.

The Bertie STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) School is more than half way through its third year and its reputation is one of highly successful and inquisitive students who are well-prepared as they look toward high school graduation and college.

“When I walked the high school hallways two and a half years ago, the only way I can describe it was that it was like a zoo,” said Bertie County Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Chip Zullinger. “Now we have students and staff at the STEM School who are working together.

“It is in the best interest of our students when the students and staff have an attitude of mutual respect and I think that’s how we operate in this school,” he added.

When Dr. Zullinger became Superintendent, the STEM school was just beginning and it lacked leadership because of the illness of the person who had been named principal. Dr. Zullinger worked with Assistant Superintendent Carol Atkins to convince G. Fisher Mitchell to take leadership of the school.

Mitchell, who was working with Bertie County Schools on a contract to administer a grant following his retirement, eventually agreed to become interim principal and then was named Principal of the school later in the first year.

As he looks back now, Mitchell said the school has progressed even faster than he thought.

“It’s probably better than I thought it would be,” Mitchell said. “Your students and teachers are both variables when you try something new like this and we have been successful in both areas.

“I think our teacher turnover rate has been higher than we would have hoped, but it has been worth it to get to the point we’re at now,” he added.

Mitchell said only two teachers were on staff from the year the school opened – Jennifer VeVerka and Kenzia Lee – and one additional teacher returned from last year – Lynn Woodard.

Still, with the help of Teach for America and other hires, Mitchell is pleased with the teaching staff at STEM now.

And he should be.

At the end of last school year, the STEM School had 73.8 percent of its students who were proficient. At the end of the first semester this year, that number has increased to 88.2 percent.

“This is our first year that we have been a data-driven school district and I think it has paid dividends,” Mitchell said. “Staff members have data that will allow them to see where they need to reteach and go back over objectives and the students are responding.”

The data thus far has been excellent. At the end of the first semester, the Bertie STEM School had no level one students on End of Course tests in Algebra I, Algebra II, Biology or Physical Science.

Another key success for the STEM School is that they boast one of the highest SAT scores of any junior student around. Holly Harrison scored a 1706 on the SAT and said she did so without really preparing herself.

“I went in completely unprepared,” she said. “I wanted to take it based on what I had learned.”

The outstanding score will likely go up, according to Mitchell, when she takes it again after going through some SAT prep work.

Mitchell said the data was one important piece, but explained that attendance was another critical part of the success of the STEM School.

“Our students come to school and they work when they are here,” Mitchell said. “Of all the things we do to enhance the students, their attendance is critical. Attendance is critical for students, for staff and for the principal.”

The teaching staff at the STEM School said they believed in working diligently and that they pushed their students to succeed.

Woodard, a Biology teacher, and Andrea Espinosa, the school’s Spanish teacher, said the work at the STEM School was challenging.

“It’s been a challenge because I was teaching adults before I came here,” Woodard said. “I set expectations high and I think that prepares them for college. I believe that was one of the goals for this school.”

Espinosa taught in the middle school in her first teaching experience in America and then moved to the STEM School.

“Every class you have to apply things to catch their attention,” Espinosa said. “I set goals for each class.”

Espinosa said she wanted her students to see Spanish as being useful in their daily lives.

Woodard said one of the school’s strong points was the support the staff enjoyed from both the parents of students and the school administration.

“If we have a problem with a student, we can call their parents and it is taken care of,” Woodard said. “I think we enjoy the closeness of a small school and that helps us as we work together.”

Espinosa said that working as a group made the school more successful.

“We’re working as a team to get the students ready to reach their goals,” she said.

Among the many activities of the STEM School is the YTC Program in which students work after school one day each week repairing computers that have been donated to the district.

“We take old computers and refurbish them,” said student Jack Nicholson. “When we’re done, we donate them to needy families or they are used in an area in which they’re needed in the school district.”

The program is headed up by Derek Bond, the district’s technology coordinator. Bond said he wanted to work with the students because he wanted to see greater opportunities for his native county’s students.

“Being a native of Bertie County, I want to see our students have the same opportunities as those in other areas,” Bond said. “They’re eager to learn which makes it easy for me to teach them.”

Bonnie Burkett serves as Media Coordinator for Bertie High School and the Bertie STEM School and has been involved in several activities for the latter. She has helped Mitchell with coordination of the ClassScape testing program, internships and voter registration.

“My job is mainly to help the support staff,” Burkett said. “I don’t have children assigned to me so I feel I should help wherever I’m needed, not just working as the Media Coordinator. We’re all working together for the same goal.”

Mitchell said it is that attitude of cooperation that provides students with more opportunities. He said Burkett and Wanda Cofield, the CTE Coordinator, were two of those who did all they could to help the STEM School succeed.

Cofield said she wanted to work to help those in the STEM School because she saw such a difference in the students.

“My office is in the Media Center,” she said. “I started noticing that students from the STEM School were coming in during the mornings and working on the computers and sitting in chair reading.

“I thought it was unusual to see students coming to work first thing in the morning,” she added. “I was impressed by what I saw.”

This year Cofield began working to offer her assistance in the STEM School as well as the traditional high school. She said a group of students were referred to her after the first testing cycle because they didn’t do well.

“They didn’t make excuses,” Cofield said. “Some of them said they didn’t know how to study and we worked on those skills. They took it seriously.”

Cofield said those students worked hard and were back on track by the next testing cycle.

Another person who has been working with the school is Vickie Wells of the North Carolina New Schools Project. She said Mitchell and his staff were a hard-working group and that the students were receiving the benefits of their dedication.

“The Bertie STEM School is one of the best schools I’ve seen,” Wells said. “The staff is accepting of change and there is strong leadership in place.”

The Bertie STEM School has 152 students in grades nine through 12. Enrollment has already begun for next year.