Putnam County School District-The Little STEAM Engine that Could

Forming The Dream Team 

Putnam County School District owes much of its success in education to a team of dedicated and passionate individuals. Together, they have transformed the district’s approach to learning and implemented successful STEM courses, continuously moving forward.

Here are a few of the individuals who have made a lasting impact on the district and transformed the way students learn:

  • Dr. Richard Surrency, the superintendent of Putnam County School District, is a veteran educator with 45 years of experience. He was elected by the community six years ago and has been re-elected because of his diligence. When he started at Putnam his goal was to move Putnam County from the bottom of the rankings to the middle of the pack. He exceeded his goal, ranking #3 in areas such as graduation rates, participation, and attendance.


  • Dr. Melissa Coleman, the Executive Director for Federal Programs, has been in education for half the time of Dr. Surrency. She is responsible for coordinating stakeholders and ensuring that programs are aligned with goals. Her most challenging task is securing and allocating funding, which is essential to the district’s success.


  • Lorena Dominey, a former teacher in Clay County, has been instrumental in creating successful STEM courses in Putnam County. She began incorporating STEM learning in her classes and later wrote a STEM-based curriculum for Woz ED. She then joined the Putnam County team and has played a vital role in the district’s STEM success.


  • Michael Helms, Lorena’s implementation partner, is responsible for teacher training and specific STEM programs like the new drone flying program. He ensures that programs align with federal education standards and monitors finances and resource needs.


Power of Play

The success of Putnam County School District can be attributed to the implementation of STEM education, which has fostered a culture of collaboration among educators and a newfound excitement for learning among students

Lorena has witnessed the positive impact of STEM education on students in the classroom.She says, 

“From hands-on activities and kids being engaged, they learn more. STEM really fits into hands-on learning, so when I started teaching it in my classroom and including a little bit of computer science I started to see improvement. When you see a kid struggling with reading or math and then all of the sudden they get hands-on experiences to learn a different way, you see the lightbulb and you can tell they actually understand a concept that they hadn’t while reading it.”

It’s not only in their specific STEM classes that kids are more engaged, but in every other subject as well. Through learning key skill sets such as collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity in STEM courses, children are able to be more present and attentive in their reading, math, and science classes.

“Sometimes it is the intangible, but it’s the spark and the opportunity for a creative outlet that allows kids to succeed in other areas,” as Melissa says.


Partnerships in STEM 

STEM2Hub, a local organization focused on expanding STEM education in NorthEast Florida, has been a crucial partner in this journey, providing resources and support to the district. Melissa Coleman, the executive director of Putnam County School District, first connected with STEM2Hub seven years ago and has been inspired by their focus on collaboration and passionate leadership.

Michael Helms says, 

“STEM2Hub is our guide. They help us answer questions we don’t have the answers to and also back that up with funding. We would not be a Woz Pathway district without the STEM2Hub financially or otherwise. They help us with things we don’t know… pretty much anything we need help with they are there.”  

Without the support of STEM2Hub and tangential organizations, Putnam County School District, which is relatively small and lacks a robust tax base, would not be as successful in implementing STEM education. 

STEM2Hub also led them into partnership with Woz ED. The Woz ED team has helped them map out an effective STEM curriculum for each grade level. The district gained pathway status with Woz ED in 2022, which means that they are now considered, “changemakers in education, and part of an exclusive global community, recognized and celebrated for educational transformation…”

The Why

I am always curious about what motivates individuals, particularly those in challenging positions, such as education, to wake up every day with enthusiasm, ready to achieve more than the day before. So I asked the exceptional individuals who have contributed to the success of Putnam County, “What is your why?”

Each of them had a unique answer:

  • Michael Helms pointed out that, in his educational experience, he was someone who never really engaged or liked school. He went through the motions, but he never felt excited to learn. He notes how much a STEM class like building 3D printers or making robots would probably have changed this for him. He is in it because he wants to make sure kids are able to fully enjoy and engage with what they are learning. 


  • Lorena does it for the lightbulb moment when a child goes from feeling lost and confused by something to feeling empowered because it finally makes sense. 


  • Melissa believes in providing equitable learning opportunities for children of all ages and backgrounds, as well as changing the landscape of what it means to truly learn. 


  • Dr. Surrency shares an analogy that is best in its original form: “You can spend all day long teaching a dog how to whistle. You can have the best lesson plans and instructional strategies, but at the end of the day the dog is not going to whistle, and the point is that if children are not learning it doesn’t matter how good the lessons are. Our goal is to find how to engage students with the material.”

They all share a passion for allowing children of all backgrounds to succeed by providing them with equal opportunity to learn and grow, changing the educational framework to fit a system of learning where children are both excited to learn and prepared for the future, and making the seemingly impossible possible. 

The How

Melissa explains that the process of developing STEM programming at Putnam County Schools is a collaborative and detail-oriented one. Administrators and teachers work together to identify the academic standards that need to be met for each semester, including reading, math, and science. They then use suggested pathways from Woz ED to select STEM lessons that will effectively teach these concepts. Lorena’s strength lies in her ability to connect hands-on learning with abstract concepts, which is a valuable asset to the team.

Michael provided an overview of the current STEM programming offered in Putnam County Schools at each grade level:

  • Preschoolers in the district are exposed to STEM learning activities through daily experiences whether that be through gardening or building with legos. 
  • Grades K-5 have one STEM class per week in which they are taught concepts like coding and robotics. 
  • 6th graders have one STEM class daily, as well as integration of STEM learning techniques in other classes. Here they begin planning and building real life models using the concepts they have learned. 
  • Junior high and high school students choose an elective to attend daily from a list of offered courses such as Aeronautics, Marine Science, and AP Computer Science. 

Big Strides Toward Common Goals

When Dr. Surrency got to Putnam, a district made up of eighteen K-12 schools, eleven of them were in what is called “State Turnaround.” This means that a school ranks in the bottom 3% in a certain state. If a school does not improve their status, action is taken by the Board of Education. Fast forward to now, Putnam has pulled each of these eleven schools out of state turnaround, and as mentioned earlier, is now the third highest ranking district in the entire state.

Additionally, Putnam County is well known for their impressive increase in graduation rates over the last few years. As Dr. Surrency proudly mentions, 

“In 2015, we had a 54.9% graduation rate, which is dismal by all standards. Through a lot of the work with our STEM  programming and focussing on giving students purpose and career pathways and providing equitable opportunities for our students, we’ve been able to improve our graduation rates to, in 2021, 92.5%.” 

Looking Ahead

Putnam County has set ambitious goals for the future. One of their current focuses, as Dr. Surrency explains, is post-secondary education. 

They are working on implementing a program called “The Portrait of a Graduate,” which outlines the skills and attributes that every Putnam County graduate needs in order to succeed in the next phase of their education. These skills include global citizenship, communication, and problem-solving skills. The objective is to ensure that each graduate acquires all the listed attributes by the end of their K-12 education.

Lorena recounts an incident where one of her students, who is learning how to build a 3D printer, is excited to see a local company use one during a school event. She expresses her desire to provide more opportunities for children to envision themselves in promising technological careers.

The team is of the consensus that their students’ success depends on their own creativity, innovation, and collaboration. They aim to keep their students engaged and prepare them for successful futures in an ever-changing world. They have come a long way, as Dr. Surrency says, 

“I’m very proud of what Putnam County has done and I think we are creating opportunities for our students in the future that they probably otherwise would not have unless they lived in a large urban district in Florida.” 


Published: February 17, 2023


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