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The D.E.S.E.R.T. Project Annual Overview

published: 12/07/2001
posted to site: 12/07/2001

The D.E.S.E.R.T. Project
Annual Overview Year Three 2000-01

The D.E.S.E.R.T. Project (District-wide Emphasis on Science Education Reform in Tucson), located in Tucson, Arizona is beginning its fourth year (9/01/01). The overall aim of the project 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 63,000 students, 53 percent are ethnic minorities and 56 percent receive free or reduced lunch. Second language acquisition (predominantly for Spanish speakers) remains a significant focus for 60 percent of schools in the District as reducing the academic achievement gap that exists for many minority students. TUSD operates 74 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.

D.E.S.E.R.T. Project provides District-wide and site-based professional development for roughly 1500 teachers, 124 principals and assistants, and the central resource staff. Three strands of professional development: site-based, District-wide, and leadership, address various systemic levels and needs in the project.

To provide support in the early stages of site implementation, the Project staff works intensely 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 time to 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. Project staff helps the site develop a science leadership team (to include the site science facilitator, principal and grade-level representatives) to continue their collaborative efforts to support science education with reduced support from D.E.S.E.R.T. staff in subsequent years. There are now three cohorts comprising total 74 sites K-8 in the first, second and third years of their reform efforts.

Following application, each cohort site conducts a site 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. They begin intensive work with an assigned D.E.S.E.R.T. Collaborative Teacher (CT) that will extend over a minimum two-year period.

In the first year, all 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. Site-based Learning Forums of small faculty groups (<10) meet during school hours for a total of fifteen hours to study and reflect 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 site planning sessions and leadership team meetings. The CT's may 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 the 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 three Cohort sites receive D.E.S.E.R.T. funds to support 15 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 helps customize the 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 142 content and pedagogy offerings available through either District or community sources. The expectation is for all K-8 teachers in the District to participate in each of these types of professional development during the five years of the D.E.S.E.R.T. Project.

Two District-wide support components enhance the systemic reform process: Special Presenters and D.E.S.E.R.T. Web technology infrastructure. In order to provide critical release time for teacher 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 provides links to additional on-line tools supporting science education reform.

The leadership strand supports the change "guides " for science education reform. The strand currently includes specific professional development programs for all K-8admnistrators; nine project Collaborative Teachers, about 110 school-based Site Facilitators, and additional classroom teacher leaders who facilitate professional development sessions and collaborative research.

The Project's partnership with the University of Arizona further supports science learning for K-8 teachers and students. In May of 2000, the university created a Science Education Liaison Office (SELO) and liaison through Howard Hughes Medical Institute funds, to articulate connections of scientist partners and promote K-8 science. D.E.S.E.R.T. Project also funds a U of A Fellowship CATTS (NSF, G-K12 Initiative) to provide the assistance of two university fellows for a total of 30 hours per week in classrooms at selected Cohort sites and 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. 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 encourage increased science content knowledge related to curricular materials.