The Jefferson Elementary principal who helped get the school’s popular Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program off the ground is taking another job. Dr. Mathew Nelson worked at a STEM school in South Dakota before coming to Winona two years ago, as Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) first STEM programs were taking form. He led professional development programs that initiated staff into the new form of education, which allows for open-ended student inquiry and focuses on applying math and science.
Nelson “played a very integral role” in STEM at Jefferson, WAPS Superintendent Scott Hannon said. “He really provided leadership.”
Teachers throughout the district competed to teach at Jefferson when it transitioned to all-STEM programming. Those teachers were trained on what STEM is, what it is like to learn under STEM programming, and together developed a vision and plan for programa at the school. Nelson and a team of teachers were part of a one-year pilot program taught their peers and allowed the school to expand the program without paying a large sum of money to bring in outside experts.
STEM has become the darling of the district, earning praise from parents and boosting test scores, according to WAPS administrators. Enrollment at Jefferson swelled as the new program came into effect. The district had to instate a lottery to decide which kindergartners make it from the waiting list into Jefferson’s classrooms.
“We are seeing individual student gains across the board and test scores are very good,” Nelson said. The school has earned state honors for its test performance the last two years, he said. “All signs show that it is successful.”
Hannon agreed the program has been successful and represented a real change in education at the school. “We didn’t just put a name on it and add a few things,” he said, “It was a whole culture change.”
Nelson described part of that culture change as teachers allowing students to be “self-directed and show that they know things other than your typical ‘drill and kill’—rote memorization and worksheets.” STEM at Jefferson has garnered lots of excitement from the WAPS School Board as well, which on Thursday will discuss adding similar programs at the middle school and/or Rollingstone Commmunity School.
Nelson credited partnerships with Winona State University and the team of original STEM teachers with making the program a success. Those teachers — Toni McDevitt, Eric Paulsen, Jessica Schmidt, Kris Szajner, and Jenna Veenendaal — put in extra time and conducted research to become experts on STEM, which was crucial for the program, Nelson said.
“It’s all about the human capital,” he continued. “We hit a home run because they got the right people on board.”
Hannon said that as the district looks for an administrator to replace Nelson, STEM experience will certainly be one criterion. However, there is not a abundance of STEM-qualified candidates, he said, and the district may opt for a solid administrator who can quickly learn about STEM.
“We’re fortunate that we’ve got the program in a solid position right now,” Hannon said, confident that Nelson’s departure would not negatively affect the program.
“The foundations have been deeply laid by a number of committed individuals, and that will continue. There is no doubt in my mind,” Nelson said of STEM at Jefferson.
Hannon wished Nelson good luck as he moves on to Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose Schools, west of the Twin Cities.
“This move is bittersweet; my heart will always have a place for Winona, the community, and the people of Jefferson Elementary,” Nelson said.