With renewed attention on science instruction, the Omaha Public Schools are applying for a $7.6 million Sherwood Foundation grant to better prepare science teachers and improve curriculum.
The five-year K-12 Comprehensive Science Teaching and Learning Grant would provide millions to hire science coaches, send teachers back to school for graduate-level science coursework, buy supplies for student experiments and develop new curriculum.
The application comes amid a national push to prepare students for STEM careers — science, technology, engineering and math. It also comes three years after Nebraska implemented new state science standards and two years after it implemented statewide testing for science.
OPS is in the process of submitting its application, which was developed solely with OPS in mind. No other districts are competing for the funding.
The grant somewhat mirrors a $5.5 million grant awarded to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and OPS this summer from the Sherwood Foundation and the Lozier Foundation to improve math instruction. That grant includes one component that pays for teachers to take extra college classes in their subject.
“The grant targets several needs simultaneously,” OPS spokesman Todd Andrews said of the proposal.
“It provides ongoing professional development for science teachers, reinforces what teachers learn by giving them a coach, and they can synthesize and then apply right off the bat what they learn in their graduate courses.”
A Nebraska Department of Education survey of teacher vacancies found science was one of the top subjects that schools had difficulty filling with qualified teachers last year.
OPS also believes the grant will help the district boost state test scores and decrease the number of students failing science classes.
At a grant presentation earlier this month, board member Marian Fey said she also wanted to see the district work toward getting more kids enrolled in higher-level science classes.
“I would like to see goals that show at the end of this grant, we're going to see an increase in underrepresented populations that take Advanced Placement or honors science,” she said.
OPS has spent the last few years tinkering with its science standards and high school requirements.
In 2010, the Nebraska Board of Education adopted new science standards for the state, and the next year the OPS school board voted to change the sequence of science classes required for high school graduation.
The district went from a model that required students to take biology, followed by chemistry, then physics, to a new sequence that starts with physical science, progresses to biology and includes a third year of a science elective class.
In 2012, students in grades, 5, 8 and 11 began taking a state standardized science test.
In the two years of science testing, OPS has seen some gains. In 2012-13, 46 percent of students in all grades scored proficient, up from 42 percent the year before.
But proficiency rates for fifth-graders remained flat, compared with a gain of 3 percentage points at the eighth-grade level and a 10-point jump for 11th-graders, from 41 percent to 51 percent.
The $7.6 million in grant funding includes:
» $3.3 million to hire 10 science coaches for in-classroom support for new teachers or those working in schools that demonstrate the greatest need, as well as professional development training sessions. Each coach would make $66,000 including benefits, starting in 2014. Six coaches would work with teachers in grades K through 6, and four with middle and high school teachers.
» $850,000 in tuition payments for teachers looking to take undergraduate and graduate courses in science.
» $700,000 for teachers to attend content immersion workshops in the summer.
» $627,000 to allow elementary teachers to develop and write new science lessons, tests and intervention methods that tie in with the district's science standards and content tested on the state tests.
Other money would be spent on equipment and textbooks and supporting student research, including an expansion of the High Altitude Balloon Near-Space Student Experiments Program and entries into science competitions.