Tacoma’s Boze Elementary School embraces hands-on learning

Red Cross worker Nathan Emory puts the question to a group of fourth-graders: “How long does an earthquake last?”

Hands shoot up around the classroom at Boze Elementary School on Tacoma’s East Side.

“Five minutes,” one boy says.

“Two minutes,” a girl suggests.

It’s true that a quake can last up to two minutes, Emory tells them, but most average about 30 seconds.

On this day, Boze students are absorbing a lesson that touches on many things quake-related, from tectonic plates to tsunamis.

But Emory and his Red Cross colleague are primarily there to help kids prepare for potential disasters. They do a stress-relief breathing exercise together and fill decorated pillowcases with supplies.

The guest speakers are one facet of a new model of teaching that’s taken hold this year at Boze. Teachers are gaining training and new insights on how to bring learning alive for kids.

It’s known as project-based learning, and it’s a partnership between Tacoma Public Schools and the Technology Access Foundation. Boze students at all grade levels are exploring projects of different kinds.

Fourth-graders are looking at natural disasters. They’re studying geology, volcanology, weather patterns and more. They’re learning videography to help the Boze community prepare for a disaster through moving images.

“There’s science, there’s math, there’s social studies, there’s writing,” fourth-grade teacher Debra Hendrix said.

At the same time, she said, teachers must ensure that basic math and literacy skills underpin the hands-on explorations.

Making all the pieces work together is especially important at Boze, where more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and where nearly three-quarters are students of color. Those students may not have the same opportunities for learning about the world that their more affluent peers take for granted.

TAF is a 20-year-old King County-based nonprofit that raises funds through private contributions, government and private grants, and fundraising events such as its Corporate Alliance Breakfast, coming up Nov. 16 in Seattle.

The organization is dedicated to bringing science, technology and math education to underserved students, particularly students of color, through project-based learning. At Boze, teachers have also added another element — the arts — to foster creativity.

TAF-style teaching is about more than computers and iPads, although those tools are used, too. It’s mostly about showing teachers how to effectively use the technology they have.

Students start with what’s called a “driving question.” They learn the skills needed to explore the question and produce something — a video, a game, a blog, a computerized visual model — that’s shared with parents and the wider community at an Exhibition Night.

“Our job is to be master weavers of the content into their (student) interests,” Boze Principal Arron Wilkins said. “It is also about connecting them with professionals in these fields — city planners, lawyers, doctors. Kids need to see that work.”

Kindergartners are exploring why guppies shipped to schools from science suppliers sometimes get sick and die. They’re taking a tour of the post office as part of their exploration, learning how packages are shipped, and testing their hypotheses on what creates an unhealthy environment for the fish.

Third-graders are looking at the many cultural backgrounds of Boze students in a project using photography and interviews. It’s called “Humans of Boze,” after the popular “Humans of New York” website and photo series.

Working with TAF faculty members are TAF instructional coaches Shoshanna Cohen and Amanda Lee-Kopchynski. Both are former teachers. They’re at TAF two days a week, working in classrooms alongside Boze staff.

They help teachers create projects that align with state and district standards. They help the school apply for grants to pay for projects. They arrange field trips and guest speakers.

Teachers decide on broad themes, but kids get to choose from within various subtopics which direction their explorations will take them, Cohen said.

“The kids are so motivated, and so engaged, because they have choices,” she said.

Added Lee-Kopchynski: “Students realize that the work they’re doing in school is not just about learning for the sake of passing a test. They are learning how to solve real-world problems.”

Boze isn’t the first school to partner with TAF. In 2008, the organization joined hands with Federal Way Public Schools to open the TAF Academy for students in grades six through 12. The academy is co-managed by both the foundation and the school district — a rare, perhaps unique, arrangement in Washington state.

In Tacoma, a five-year agreement gives both the school district and TAF a voice in decisions at Boze, including future staffing. But district Superintendent Carla Santorno is the ultimate decision-maker.

TAF provides instructional coaches, training and other support for teachers, as well as enrichment opportunities for students.

And it’s all done at no cost to the district.

“We feel privileged to be part of it,” said Deputy Superintendent Josh Garcia, who was a Federal Way administrator when TAF Academy was created there.

Boze teachers and staff visited other TAF programs and took a vote before the school adopted the model. So far, their principal says, it’s working well.

“TAF is helping Boze transform learning beyond the walls of the school,” Wilkins said.

TAF spokeswoman Uma Rao said the goal is to have Boze running the program independently at the end of the five-year partnership. She said TAF is also open to working with other Tacoma schools, as well as schools in other districts that serve high numbers of students of color and students from lower-income families.

Garcia also said Tacoma could be open to expanding the TAF model beyond Boze.

“At this point we are excited and optimistic about our partnership,” Garcia said. “We have not discussed expanding the relationship to date. We are open to expanding any successful program, if it is a right fit for that community.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo