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Annual Overview Year Four 2001-02

submitter: DESERT Project
published: 2002
posted to site: 11/21/2002

D.E.S.E.R.T. Project
Annual Overview Year Four 2001-02

The D.E.S.E.R.T. Project (District-wide Emphasis on Science Education Reform in Tucson), located in Tucson, Arizona is beginning its fifth and final evaluation year (9/01/02). The Project intent remains to create systemic change in the way science is perceived and taught, so that all K-8 students develop scientific literacy. The Project, in collaboration with the University of Arizona and other community partners, has three primary goals to:

  • Promote clear standards for effective science education which are aligned with National Science Education Standards
  • Provide both district-wide and site-based professional development for educators to develop the capacity to teach science and to improve student achievement
  • Develop school sites as collaborative learning communities to sustain a system-wide science reform effort
The Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) serves over 62,000 students. Sixty two percent are ethnic minorities and fifty six percent receive free or reduced lunch. In addition, English language acquisition (predominantly for Spanish speakers) remains a significant effort in sixty percent of schools in the District. In 2001-02, TUSD had 72 elementary schools, 20 middle schools, and 11 high schools. The District mission is to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and personal qualities they will need to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. Reducing the academic achievement gap that exists for many poor or minority students is a primary focus in the District.

D.E.S.E.R.T. Project provides district-wide and site-based professional development for roughly 1600 teachers, 124 site administrators, and central resource staff. Three strands of professional development: site-based, district-wide, and leadership, address various systemic levels and the needs of the District.

To provide support in the early stages of site implementation, the Project staff work intensively each year with a subset of 20-25 schools designated as a Cohort. Though all schools are expected to participate in science related professional development during the Project, the Cohort design allows sites to determine when they are best able to devote additional time for collaboration focused on school-wide implementation of best practices in science instruction and support. In the first year as a Cohort, D.E.S.E.R.T. staff help the site develop a science leadership team (to include the site science facilitator, principal and grade-level representatives) and a two year action plan to develop their collaborative efforts to support science education as D.E.S.E.R.T. staff support decreases in subsequent years. There are now four cohorts including 94 sites K-8 in the first, second, third and fourth years of their site reform efforts.

At the onset, each Cohort site conducts a needs assessment (Practice Profile) to define the site's progress relative to five critical supports for reform identified by D.E.S.E.R.T: 1) vision/leadership, 2) professional development, 3) curriculum and materials, 4) assessment and, 5) community support & enabling structures. This process helps the site to customize their plan of action. In the first Cohort year, the site begins intensive work with an assigned D.E.S.E.R.T. Collaborative Teacher (CT) that extends over a minimum two-year period. Once schools have cohort status they are expected to include science in their site based professional development program and to address the 5 components necessary to implement district science goals.

In their first year, Cohort site teams (n=5-12 including the principal) attend a four-day Summer Leadership Institute to establish a vision and a plan of action based on the five support areas. All faculty participate in 2.5 site-based Learning Forum sessions in small groups (<10) during the work day in the school year for a total of fifteen hours. The forums support study and reflection on specific best practices for science instruction. These sessions also help develop the learning community, model peer collaboration, and promote shared decision making among staff. The D.E.S.E.R.T. staff also supports the site planning sessions and leadership team meetings. The CT's introduce structures and formats for community building, peer coaching, middle school scope and sequence development teacher research, science notebooks, mentoring, community networking, formative assessment, looking a student work, collaborative lesson study, kit clubs and site-based study groups.

In a Cohort's second year, the site leadership team and principal attend a second four-day summer institute, Next Steps, to develop strategies for formative assessment to build students conceptual understanding and to further site collaboration. The Institute provides time to refine and refocus the second-year action plan. Each Cohort school may hold a 4-8 hour pre-service day at the site in August for all teachers to review and refine this plan. In years two and beyond Cohort sites have D.E.S.E.R.T. funds to support at least15 hours of site based professional development for each teacher on staff who has not yet met the 100 hour NSF professional development requirement. This allocation enables the site to customize professional development to meet needs identified by the site relative to D.E.S.E.R.T. Project vision of effective science instruction

The district-wide professional development strand provides opportunities for all K-8 teachers each year to meet the science instructional needs of diverse learners. Grade specific, Basic/Foundation courses are for first time users of CORE programs, and subsequent Extension courses expand knowledge and skill in pedagogy, inquiry, content and assessment to build student's conceptual understanding through specific modules. Since the project start, teachers have participated in hundreds of content and pedagogy offerings available through either District or community sources. The expectation is that all K-8 teachers in the District participate in professional development to meet the needs identified to improve science instruction during the five years of D.E.S.E.R.T. Project.

Two district-wide components support the systemic reform process: Special Presenters and D.E.S.E.R.T. Web technology infrastructure. In order to provide release time critical for site based professional development, specially trained presenters visit classes using an in-depth, critical thinking and science exploration tool, The Private Eye, while teachers attend site based in service. The D.E.S.E.R.T. Web site is intended to provide convenient access to information about the project and a vehicle for collaboration and networking among participants. The Web site provides links to on-line tools to support science education reform. The URL is

The leadership strand supports the various change "guides" for science education reform. This strand currently includes professional development programs for all K-8 administrators (PULSE), nine project Collaborative Teachers, approximately 110 school-based Site Facilitators, and a classroom teacher leader cadre to facilitate professional development sessions and collaborative research.

The Project's partnership with the University of Arizona supports science learning for K-8 teachers and students. In May of 2000, the University established a Science Education Liaison Office (SELO) and a liaison position funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute, to articulate connections with scientist partners and to promote science in grades K-8. D.E.S.E.R.T. Project also funds a U of A CATTS Fellowship (NSF, G-K12 Initiative) to enlist the assistance of two university fellows for a total of 30 hours per week in classrooms at selected Cohort sites and at summer professional development sessions. Scientist Partners from the U of A Science and Mathematics Education Center (SAMEC) and College of Education participate in professional development and provide extensive outreach opportunities. These activities include site visits, workshops, institutes, and academies with TUSD educators to increase their understanding and developing scientific habits of mind, as well as to increase science content knowledge related to curricular materials.