Bleary-eyed preteens in science and math classrooms throughout the country struggle to stay awake. They suffer through chemistry lab assignments whose climaxes tend to be some indicator turning purple when placed in the correct vial of liquid. They haphazardly complete science fair projects and long for the high school days ahead when they will have some options in terms of what courses they take.
And most of them will take the fewest math and science courses required of them.
Then there is the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) lab at the Palos Verdes Intermediate School where excited groups of eight graders run around a modern lab, building intricate mousetrap devices that use the principles of physics to not only allow a marble to successfully run through the course, but to have that marble then pass automatically into the mousetrap of the neighboring group. They are learning simple machines; pulleys, levers, incline planes.
But don’t tell them that.
“Thursday they’re going to see if it can all work,” said Kurt Hay, who teaches the eighth grade STEM lab elective at the Palos Verdes Intermediate School. “They have to communicate. They have to draw their design. It’s a really fun.”
“That’s the whole point of STEM,” said Scott Garman who teaches the seventh grade elective at PVIS. “Math and science classes are traditionally so dry and boring and the kids don’t care. The technology and engineering aspects of hands-on learning give them the impetus to want to learn the science and use the math. That’s what it’s all about.”
STEM also allows students a way to explore math and science to prepare for the next step. “It sets them up for what they want to do in high school,” Hay said. “They don’t have to learn the basics then.”
“We want them to have an edge,” said Andrea Sala, Executive Director of the Peninsula Education Foundation, which funds the STEM project. “This kind of program gives them that edge when they’re applying to college. And we need it at the middle school level. By the time you get to high school you need to know that you want to continue on that STEM path.”
The Peninsula Education Foundation (PEF) was started in 1980, two years after California passed Proposition 13, drastically cutting school budgets statewide by slashing property tax and shifting the funding responsibility of public education from communities to the state.
Prior to the 1978 legislation, Palos Verdes had enjoyed a heavy cash flow that allowed for well-above-average schools. After Prop. 13, the state deemed Palos Verdes a low-need community, resulting in a budget slash that put the school system’s high standards in great danger.
“The people in our community said, ‘Oh no,’” Sala said. “And they immediately jumped on forming the foundation. And the need has grown, so our office staff has grown and our pledge has grown, even in the last four years. Four years ago we were raising 1.5 million and now we’re raising 3 million.”
“There’s people like Manhattan Beach gets $200 to $300 more per student,” Sala said. “We raise money through parents – 80 percent of our funding comes from parents – and corporate sponsorship like Toyota and Honda.”
John Bacich is a member of the Peninsula Education Foundation’s Board of Trustees and the vice president of the major donors committee. He understands that other school districts have greater needs and less opportunity to raise money as a community.
“I get it,” he said. “It’s more desperately needed elsewhere. But this community places a lot of importance on education so it’s our duty as a community to uphold our standards.”
The Board of Trustees decides where the PEF money goes, but the funding is divided equally among all 17 of the schools in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District (PVPUSD). They focus on programs like the STEM program, music education, and protecting teachers’ jobs. Half of the $3 million dollar pledge goes towards teachers’ salaries.
“Back in 2007 and 2008, when the state was going downhill financially, teachers were losing their jobs,” Sala said. “Since that time we have lost 77 teachers, over ten percent of our teaching staff. So if we didn’t give money to teachers, we would lose at least another 20.”
Beyond the STEM program, The PEF funds college preparation programs and the music program in all of the community’s elementary schools.
“We fund the academic counselors at the high school, which takes our counselor to student ratio much lower. Without our funding the average would be about 700:1. With our funding it’s about 350:1. And the state average is 900:1.”
“The PEF also funds college career centers which helps them navigate their college path,” explained Deidre Manns, President of the foundation. “The academic counselors help the day-to-day plan for college. The college career centers do college visits on campus, help with testing, and they have great connections for us all across the nation at all colleges.”
Thanks in great part to these programs, the PVPUSD can boast that 98 percent of its high school graduates attend college.
“The PVPUSD elementary classroom music program is 100 percent financed by the Peninsula Education Foundation,” said Kathleen Peterson who runs the program.
“The music program was very limited before the PEF took over funding,” she said.
“There was only a third, fourth and fifth grade chorus which met before school once a week, funded the by Friends of School Music, and a few weeks of 4th grade recorder classes.”
The elementary program pique students’ interest in music at an early age and readies them for music opportunities in middle school and high school.
“The PEF funding is used for teacher salaries for a thirty-week music program at all ten elementary schools from grades TK through 5th grade,” Peterson said. “It prepares the students to participate in the orchestras, bands, choirs, and music theory classes offered in the Palos Verdes intermediate and high schools. “
Students in Peterson’s chorale program have the unique opportunity to sing at the Norris Center for the Performing Arts each winter. Dedicated teachers like Peterson, Hay and Garman take the PEF funding and make the best possible use of it in their schools.
The STEM pilot program began at PIS three years ago, thanks to a Honda Grant obtained by PEF. The last two years Honda has provided $60,000 in grant money for starting up the program. This year, Robinson Helicopter in Torrance donated $15,000 to help build the STEM labs. But the labs would not be what they are without the actual physical labor that Hay and Garman donated.
Last summer they spent their time off building tables for the eighth grade STEM lab.
“These tables were going to cost $6,000 each,” Hay said. “But Scott and I built all six of them for $3,000. We didn’t want to spend that kind of money so we built them ourselves over the summer so we could save that money for the kids to buy more stuff.”
The program, in this way, exemplifies the difference PEV makes in local schools – by demonstrating the community’s commitment to education, it bolsters teachers’ commitment to students. Excellence results.
“Hay and Garman are incredibly dedicated,” Mann said. “They’ve rediscovered their love of teaching through STEM.”