wayne_gent.jpgWEST PALM BEACH — The Palm Beach County School District and the University of Florida (UF) have launched a three-year reform effort to build a “best-in-class” educational program in the vital STEM subject areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

Officials say the ambitious effort could become a national model for transforming teacher practice and student learning in the STEM subjects. The resulting professional development and educational advances will directly benefit thousands of teachers and students in the district.

Major financial support for the STEM initiative comes from $1 million in combined grants from three charitable foundations: the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, the Mary and Robert Pew Public Education Fund, and the Quantum Foundation.

Additional financing is projected with amounts to be considered before the effort’s second and third years. The University of Florida has worked with the district and its community and philanthropic partners in planning the initiative, officials say, and will provide “in-kind” professional development and educational programs valued at more than $1 million — primarily through existing state and national foundation grants held by UF’s College of Education.

Officials at UF and the district say they expect the Initiative to yield measurable improvement in four key areas: school culture, teacher quality, student learning and performance, and assessment evaluations in the STEM subjects for both teachers and students. Certain programs are designed especially for schools in high-poverty communities where teacher recruitment and retention is more challenging.

The initiative “will position the Palm Beach County school system as a national leader in recruiting, retaining and developing highly effective teachers and boosting students’ achievement,” said Dean Glenn Good of UF’s College of Education. “Together, we are creating powerful learning communities that will continue to enhance teacher practices and student learning in technology subjects for years to come.”

Noting “the ever increasing importance of STEM-related jobs in Florida,” Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Wayne Gent said “We are grateful to our partners at the University of Florida, along with the generosity of our key foundation partners, who made this program a reality.”

The College of Education at UF brings several existing STEM education innovations to the partnership, officials said: The college’s Lastinger Center for Learning will provide job-embedded professional learning opportunities to district science and math teachers, and the center’s free, online Algebra Nation tutoring program supports students and teachers preparing for a required algebra end-of-course exam.

Through a program called U-FUTuRES (UF Unites Teachers to Reform Education in Science), officials said, UF education faculty will train middle school Science Teacher Leaders to lead district-wide implementation of research-proven teaching practices and subject content, and will provide free tuition to 15 Palm Beach County teachers for a job-embedded certificate program in science education. The university launched U-FUTuRES last year in 20 mostly rural Florida school districts under a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Another state-funded program UF created last year, said officials, is STEM-TIPS (Teacher Induction and Professional Support), which will have College of Education faculty developing coaching, mentoring and networking programs.