In an unprecedented year, introducing a new project is no easy feat. How STEM Prep ensured the right conditions for a multi-year continuous improvement effort.

Launched in January 2020, the Charter Students with Disabilities Pilot Community Initiative supports a networked improvement community (NIC) of 10 charter management organizations (CMOs) aiming to improve outcomes for their students with disabilities. Race and class have a compounding effect on students in special education that creates an experience gap between these students and their peers. This is why the initiative prioritizes CMOs serving a high proportion of students who are Black, Latinx, or experiencing poverty.

In honor of the final week of Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, this series spotlights early improvement stories from the field, in partnership with technical assistance provider Marshall Street Initiatives. The pilot community’s goal is to systematically improve the way we serve students with disabilities and bring these solutions back to school systems everywhere.

BY MARCO CASTANEDA and DARIA ZHAO

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — It’s not easy introducing a new project into the workflows of an existing team. Harder still is when a team structure hasn’t existed before, and it’s up to you to bring together team members from across an organization, operating at different levels, in a variety of job functions. But when collaboration is in the best interests of students, it’s worth it.

So when STEM Preparatory Schools received the opportunity to join a multi-year Networked Improvement Community (NIC) with the goal of dramatically improving outcomes for Black, Latinx, and low-income students with disabilities, Special Educator Coordinator Mary Maher answered the call. With the backing of project sponsors Emilio Pack and Janette Rodriguez-Pack, Mary was empowered and trusted to connect the goal of the NIC with STEM Prep’s organizational mission—specifically, to disrupt the status quo of inequitable access into STEM fields for women and minorities.

By articulating how the NIC’s goal to improve experiences and outcomes for diverse learners directly supported STEM Prep’s founding mission of inclusion, stakeholders across STEM Prep’s Improvement Team were able to rally around the work of the NIC. In one student interview, a Math and Science College Prep (MSCP) student shared his clear understanding of STEM Prep’s vision: “We are STEM thinkers. We are family. We are agents of change.”

Commitment to STEM access and inclusion was visible at every level. Above, walls and doors depicting STEM role models of color during site visits in early Spring 2020.

Moreover, a culture of inclusion was already in place for most of the day. In our site visit, we noted the use of Placement Assessments for all incoming freshmen, allowing STEM Prep to provide support classes to all students, and not just those with diagnosed learning disabilities. Instructional Assistants also checked in with all students, not only students with disabilities. Pre-existing organizational commitment to inclusion was key to aligning all stakeholders necessary to introduce the project at STEM Prep’s focal sites. 

“We are STEM thinkers. We are family. We are agents of change.”

By the time the team headed into its third kick-off meeting of the summer, Mary, the project’s Improvement Lead, had gathered voices from across the team. Improvement Team members had also read the Revised Plan asynchronously. But the final kick-off meeting brought everyone into the same Zoom room to examine pieces that had been separately constructed throughout the summer.

Examining milestones and deliverables in STEM Prep’s Revised Project Plan, Mary articulated a clear commitment from the Improvement Team, and a desire to build capacity for continuous improvement. The team was there, the team was eager to dive into the work, and—upon seeing the sheer number of milestones required to push the project through—team members at every level jumped to volunteer to lead the work. Why? Every individual on the team recognized their work would make a difference to STEM Prep’s broader mission.

That was the ‘ah-a’ moment when things clicked: Because conditions were already there, and because mindsets were already aligned, Mary could count on the Improvement Team to distribute, delegate, and advocate for time and space to do this important work. ■

Improvement advisor Marco Castaneda led the reporting of this story. Daria Zhao writes from Marshall Street Initiatives, a K-12 solutions lab that tackles persistent challenges in American public education. Learn more about Marshall Street’s work in continuous improvement at marshall.org.