Duval County School District: A Big Fish in a Gigantic Sea

Duval County School District in Northeast Florida is one of the largest school districts in the United States. It serves about 150,000 students with 95 elementary schools, 35 middle schools, and 22 high schools. Integrating STEM learning is not an easy task. According to Peter Carafano, his team is like a tiny rudder on a Titanic-sized ship, so they have to progress slowly.

The district is made up of schools that range from low socioeconomic schools with free and reduced lunch to schools that look like private schools. There are both rural and inner city schools in the same district. This makes it difficult to scale programs to benefit everyone equally.

In the tale as old as time, the tortoise beats the hare. With patience, innovation, and determination, Duval county leaders are ready to implement STEM programs one school at a time because they already know how impactful it is.

A Few Key Players

The STEM duo is made up of Peter Carafano and Chelsea Ross, both STEM education specialists. The broader department includes Brandi Christovitch, Duval’s career and technical education specialist, and Yvonne Spinner the supervisor of elementary education, to name a few. Each of them play a key role in change making and sustainable programming. They are planning, not just for this academic calendar, but for the next year and the next and the next. I was able to sit down with Peter and Brandi to learn more about Duval County School District.

Peter entered the Duval County scene four years ago as the STEM coordinator. Prior to working this position, he was a high school chemistry teacher for twenty three years in Tallahassee. He splits time between figuring out the logistics of grant funding, planning curriculum, and nurturing partnerships.

Brandi has been around the Duval School District for 30 years, having lived in the area and sent eight children through Duval schools. She went from substitute teacher to full time teacher to lead computer science teacher in the district. She moved over to the district administration side a year and a half ago. She is also a woman with many responsibilities. Every day is different for her. On the day that I met with her, she was on her way to provide Lego training to one of the new computer science teachers. She splits her time between teacher training/support in the computer science realm, resource allocation, building curriculum maps, and taking part in career fairs

Programs that Last

One of the more challenging aspects of the job is figuring out which programs, grants, and resources are sustainable. Oftentimes, a school will receive a grant that directly funds a certain program, along with providing teacher training and resources for that program. Once the grant runs out, the program crumbles rapidly and the school is often left in worse shape than before. Duval has made a goal for themselves: “to only support programs that we ourselves can provide professional development and ongoing instruction for.” They have committed to a system where they only purchase products that can be supported in house and maintained over time.

As a way to get more schools within the district involved with STEM Education programming, Duval has implemented what they call The Lending Library Program. The district purchases technology that they can afford to maintain and provide teacher training. Teachers can then borrow the equipment and resources and use them in their classrooms with students. Once they finish using a program or resource, they return it to the lending library so that it can be used by someone else. This approach allows schools throughout the district to access resources such as Woz ED Drone Kits and Lego Robotics Technology.

The One Percent over the Ninety-Nine Percent

In the true name of STEM Education, Duval utilizes the trial and error method. Peter Carafano says that 99% of the ideas he has don’t work, but when the 1% does work, it’s more than enough kindling for the fire. Brandi agrees and states, “That’s the true nature of computer science in a nutshell. Solve this problem, now solve this problem, now solve this one.” With support from organizations like Lift Jax and STEM2Hub, Duval county has been able to  dive deeper into STEM and Computer Science Implementation.

Currently, about 12 pilot schools have fully implemented the Woz ED pathway curriculum and serve as models for other schools in the district. Most of these schools are middle schools as they tend to be more flexible when it comes to academic standard testing. For example, at the elementary level, there is benchmark testing and at the high school level there is AIMs testing. Through exploring programs at the middle school level, administrators are able to determine which lesson plans and activities deal with fundamentals for K-5, and which are advanced enough for the high school level. Pilot schools also contribute an array of technology and resources to the lending library, which allows for other schools in the district to borrow and learn.

Keeping it Interesting

In addition to his roles as a change-maker, curriculum builder, and program implementer, Peter Carafano runs an interactive short TV series called Space Gate Station. Each episode is twenty minutes long and focuses on basic STEM instructional units. The program is set on a space station located on the moon and features astronaut teachers discussing various STEM topics, such as geology and technology. They are also assisted by an AI element named Aurora.

Creating this program has been a wonderful experience for Peter as it allows him to be creative while still dealing with the sometimes tedious tasks of budget allocation and planning. One of his favorite episodes features Kathleen Schofield, the leader of STEM2Hub, teaching students how to fly drones. Space Gate Station resembles the Magic School Bus series that I remember watching in school and provides an innovative way for teachers to meet STEM instructional requirements.

Who Measures Success?

Peter puts it this way, “The University is not our yard stick, it is our local industry partners.” This means that colleges are not keeping up with the necessary skills for the current and future workforce. They continue to teach outdated and nontransferable skills, and the rising cost of attending makes it unfeasible for many students. Brandi adds that allowing students the opportunity to work high paying jobs right out of high school grants them greater financial freedom later on to attend secondary school.

Instead of looking at what it takes to get into a university, educators are starting to ask local industry partners what skills they look for in an employee. If K-12 schools are able to teach their students these skills and help them get certified before graduating high school, they can immediately begin working salaried positions with benefits. They have a direct opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty and succeed professionally.

This type of model is known as a “corporate model of success,” and this is how Duval county is approaching STEM integration. Peter comments on how to effectively make change. It requires a top-down approach by getting decision-makers within the district to change their mindset, which will then influence others. He says,

“You need to change the culture. To change the culture you’ve got to get the people that are inside the decision making process of the district. Once you change them, they’ll change everyone else.”

Providing a Path Forward

Duval county is always evolving and expanding in various directions, but one thing they are excited about for the near future is bringing more computer science and STEM learning programs to the elementary level.

Brandi explains the importance of changing the dialogue around professional development starting at a young age. Instead of making statements like “this child loves to build lego trains,” why don’t we say “this child is really gifted and interested in engineering.” Instead of “gardening”, let’s start using the term “agriculture” with elementary aged students. In doing so, children are exposed to larger overarching concepts in industry and can begin to grasp which skills are used in which areas of work.

I asked both Brandi and Peter what inspires and excites them about their work. Each of them share a  love for problem solving and the experiential aspect of working within the STEM world. The skills they build curriculum around are the same skills each of them use to create successful programs.

When Peter taught chemistry, which he loved dearly, he was able to directly help about 150 children each year. Now, his work directly impacts 150,000 students and he feels that building successful STEM programs is the way for many of these students to excel in life post K-12.

Brandi shares how she wants students to have clarity and confidence in their chosen fields. Kids are dreamers, many of them have ideas of what they want to be when they grow up, but there is no path outlined for them to get there. She says,

“There are these high in the sky ideas of you know, ‘I’m going to play in the NFL, I’m going to do this I’m going to do that,’ but there’s no real course or path for these students to get there…I want to provide for students these real pathways, these real opportunities, these real experiences working in industry and finding what it is that they are called to do.”

As a mother of eight children, Brandi has experienced the power of allowing young people to see a path forward.


Published: March 08, 2023


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