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Briarlake Elementary

Dekalb County Schools



Briarlake Elementary's STEM journey began in 2014 when the Briarlake Elementary Foundation hired an Instructional Technology Coach part-time, to assist staff in utilizing technology in teaching and learning. Briarlake parents wanted students to have STEM resources and technology and by mid-year, the part-time Instructional Technology Coach's role shifted from Instructional Technology Coach to STEM Liaison with increased work hours and responsibilities.  Our school principal, Jamela Lewis, arrived in fall of 2015. She observed that our school possessed many STEM-like components and practices exampled in the highly revered Briarlake Garden, Recycling Program, and STEM Aquaponics System. The principal hired, the at that time, current part-time Instructional Technology Coach funded through Briarlake's foundation, as a full-time Visual and Media Arts teacher or Art-Tech Teacher through DeKalb County School district.  In addition, an Instructional Support Specialist was hired to assist the school in building a STEM Structure and basic instructional approach needed to become STEM certified, but ultimately re-envision how we teach students. The Art-Tech introduced the use of iPads to students and staff via Media Arts Days and Grade Level collaborative planning days, to include technology-based art lessons that included game design, animation, digital art, photography, 3D modeling, and 3D printing. For many consistent session, district level Professional Learning Facilitators were brought to the school with the specific goal of teaching instructional staff how to effectively develop and implement strong real-world, content integrated PBLs. Briarlake Elementary School received their first STEM certification in the spring of 2017. 


A Deaf-Hard of Hearing teacher transitioned to become Briarlake's Technology teacher in the school's specials rotation. The new Tech Teacher and Art-Tech Teacher collaborated in leading STEM professional development for staff. As a continuous growth component and next step within our action plan, school administration hired a STEM Lead/ STEM Teacher for Briarlake to function as STEM Committee Lead and to serve as STEM Specials teacher to students from Pre-K through fifth grade. As a result, new school partnerships were established and maintained partnerships, such as Home Depot, Midnight Science Club, Kids STEM News Network, Carlos Museum. She also has started First Lego League Robotics and Girls Who Game after-school clubs that have won many recognitions for our school district, state, and nationwide. 


Briarlake Elementary School's core identity encompasses students' engagement in authentic work that makes deep connections to prepare our students to be problem solvers and college ready. Our students have numerous opportunities during the school day and extended day to participate in STEM activities. Our strength is in our parent community and partnerships, and extended day opportunities available for all students. Parents and community partners are available during the day and after school to provide resources and time for our students and teachers. Briarlake Elementary School's motto is: One School. One Community. One Success. Our grade level teams are phenomenal about planning projects and STEM PBL lessons together. They collaborate with our STEM Lead teacher in our building who helps provide community resources and partners to support student learning. Over the years, we have had many partners and resources led by parents and teachers, such as Carlos Museum and the High Museum. 


Our school's mission is to operate in excellence. Our faculty, staff, and students operate in excellence by ensuring that everything we do is centered on how to achieve exceptional personal, professional, academic, and social growth within students and within our school. Our school's vision is to be one of the most sought-after schools in the nation. In the last five years, we continue to strive towards the achievement of this vision. In 2019, our school was the first elementary school to win state recognition at the First Lego League Robotics where we clenched a third place win. Our First Lego League Robotics teams have grown from ten 5th grade students to twenty 4th and 5th grade students. We have won awards every single school year for Robot Design, Robot Game, Project award, and Championship awards. 


During the pandemic in the spring of 2021, Briarlake Elementary participated in a pilot program called Girls Who Game for DeKalb County School District. A team of ten 4th and 5th grade girls met virtually with their teacher champion, solving and building a community to support women impacted by the pandemic on Minecraft Education. Our school came in second place in all of North America! In the fall of 2021, twelve 4th and 5th grade girls participated in Girls Who Game. They interviewed community members, planned and built a well-being community. Again, our school won two awards in all of the United States. Our girls won People's Choice Award for Partnerships and Minecraft Star Award for creativity and critical thinking. Briarlake Girls Who Game team were also selected by Dell Technologies for a photo/b-roll shoot to capture social impact content. The girls have inspired our entire student body to want to build worlds on Minecraft Education. Students in grades 2-5 were challenged to improve and build our school on Minecraft Education. We had about 80 students actively collaborating, planning, building, interviewing faculty and staff for their suggestions, and creating a visually and engaging Briarlake Elementary school on Minecraft Education. Briarlake is also in the first cohort of thirty schools in DeKalb County School District participating in Amazon Boot-Up. The Amazon Future Engineer partnership provides our STEM Lead with ongoing training for three years to teach our students computer science, such as Scratch, Scratch Jr. and Microbits.  


Our school has also had renowned speakers that have helped students connect what they are learning with the real world. We had Kennedy Space Center Director and Astronaut Robert Cabana speak to our fourth grade student body about working at NASA and on the International Space Station. We had Dr. Lonnie Johnson, NASA engineer and inventor of the super soaker, present to our entire student body. We also have had Mr. Wizard and Mr. Green, the Science Machine, who both demonstrated engaging science experiments to our entire school. 


Furthermore, the implementation of STEM over the past five years has created an instructional movement within the school building. Teachers and staff have learned to utilize cross-curricular instructional practices and research-based strategies that address student's current and future needs within the areas of communication, collaboration, technology, citizenship, critical thinking, and creativity. One of the most effective instructional approaches toward the implementation of STEM is the practice of project-based learning (PBL). PBL has allowed instruction to take place through student-centered investigations and projects that foster an environment of academic discourse, problem-solving, inquiry, and testing. Additionally, we continuously provide STEM and PBL professional learning to support teachers with the ongoing implementation of STEM and PBL. 


While Briarlake continues to experience numerous successes and achievements, it has not been without hardships and challenges. Staff retention has been a tremendous challenge with 20 staff members (approximately 25%) remaining from the initial certification year. With the exception of 2020-2021 during the height of the Covid pandemic, we have continued to have staff turnover. This has led to increased time and efforts to support staff new to STEM and its embedded core instructional practices and ideals. It has also been difficult to establish and maintain momentum with the staff. The year we retained a majority of the staff was also the year schools went virtual due to the pandemic. This initial pandemic year, we lost traction as we were in survival mode and providing a new, intensive level of support to teachers heavily focused around social emotional issues.  

Alignment to DCSD pacing and curriculum has also posed a challenge over the years as teachers sometimes struggle to choose standards from multiple content areas and units to embed within their PBL lessons. It has posed a restriction that we are forced to work around. Teachers also struggle to integrate multiple content areas due to the district requirements. In response, the Briarlake leadership team developed a STEM/PBL Advanced Content Template to direct teachers' attention to intentional content integration. 

After the initial certification year, sustaining teacher buy-in and energy towards the continuous STEM program build-up has been a challenge. Navigating the pandemic and training of new staff have been specific barriers to maintaining momentum. School leadership has worked to avoid presenting best practices within STEM implementation as yet another school initiative or added weight to teachers' plates. Embedding STEM as a part of Briarlake's core identity has been the focus of school leadership over the last five years. While we have continued to observe STEM core practices implemented daily in classrooms building wide, we are continuing to be strategic in our efforts to support our staff within STEM culture and growth. 

Institutional practices that support STEM improvement efforts include collaborative planning and professional learning expectations. These opportunities are mapped out at the beginning of each year and protected. Teachers are provided tools and resources, including both district and internally created items, to support PBL planning work. The training opportunities have contributed to long-term professional growth within our staff and capacity for high-quality STEM instruction that impacts student achievement. Instructional expectations have developed into much more rigorous, authentic learning for our students. Students are engaged in real world problem solving that mimics their future adult lives in college and careers.    

STEM improvement efforts are the primary focus within our district Comprehensive School Wide Improvement Plan (CSIP). Over the last five years, we have streamlined our improvement efforts from multiple, sometimes unattainable goals to STEM as our primary focus. The district's stringent requirements around CSIP monitoring helps to ensure the leadership team continuously reviews, reflects, and refines our priority instructional strategies and action steps. We maintain a strict timeline to ensure we meet targets throughout the year. Simplifying our focus has contributed to STEM growth and progress school wide with teachers/students, partnership engagement, and parent participation.  This continuous cycle will ensure sustainability of our STEM program.