Yokomi Science and Technology Magnet Elementary: FOSS as an Instructional Model in Fresno, California

Jerry D.Valadez, Ed.D., K-12 Science Coordinator, Fresno Unified School District, California
March 01, 2006 | FOSS in Schools

One by one reports emerge that underscore our nation’s failure to find or invent ways to close the achievement gap in mathematics, science, and technology (NSF,2004). This gap between the achievement of historically underrepresented populations and other groups must be closed aggressively, comprehensively, realistically, and affordably.

The Yokomi Science and Technology Magnet Elementary School is an innovative and effective solution to this gap created by the Fresno Unified School District. Fresno is located near the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley and, according to the 2000 Census, is one of the largest, fastest growing, and most diverse cities in the state of California. Fresno’s population of more than 450,000 people makes it California’s sixth largest city. The city of Fresno’s population is ranked first in the nation in poverty (Brookings Institute, 2005), and Fresno County’s most significant workforce issue is a chronic unemployment rate that ranges from 10–16%. The Fresno County Grand Jury recently released a report (Report #1, 2005) one economic development, education and workforce issues. It cited the need for additional educational opportunities for youth to acquire technological literacy and experience in applied technology fields. This is also consistent with the recent report issued by 15 of the most prominent U.S. business organizations, called “Tapping America’s Potential: The Education for Innovation Initiative.” The report calls for the need to maintain this country’s competitiveness in the 21st century by doubling the number of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering graduates with bachelor’s degrees by 2015.

The Yokomi Science and Technology Magnet School opened as a new K–6 campus with 644 students in August 2005. The student population is very diverse: 68% Hispanic, 12% African-American, 12% Asian, and 8% white. Gender distribution is 48% female and 52% male. More than 70% of the students come from homes where English is not the primary language spoken, and 48% of the students are identified as English learners.

Children learning

Funded through a U.S. Department of Education Magnet grant, Yokomi’s instructional design is based on the ideal of preparing students for work in the 21st century by increasing the opportunities for students to learn about, experience, and use information technologies that enhance the learning of science content and the acquisition of workplace skills. Yokomi Science and Technology Magnet provides students the opportunity to learn from the extensive use of technology in classrooms, libraries, and science laboratories built and equipped specifically for elementary students. The instructional program provides an exceptional learning environment that engages students in inquiry-based activities, which develops conceptual learning throughout the curriculum. The curricular emphasis is on science and the integration of technology as a tool for acquiring and demonstrating knowledge. Every classroom is equipped with a SMART Board, laptop computer, projector, AlphaSmart system, wireless microphone, document cameras, and a mobile wireless laptop cart. A schoolwide video conferencing system is also available. Technology has become an integral part of the curriculum and is used as a vehicle for cooperative learning, science content instruction, and literacy connections through science. The core curriculum for Yokomi’s science magnet program is the Full Option Science System (FOSS) developed by the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California at Berkeley. Fresno Unified has used FOSS since 1993, and many of the teachers have received ongoing training on the modules. The daily science-based literacy instruction provides students with both FOSS and Harcourt Science programs. Students engage in science instructional materials and text every day. The time spent on science learning varies with each grade level, from 70 minutes daily at grades K–3 to 120 minutes daily for grades 4–6. Students go to a specially designed elementary science lab everyday for half of their science instruction. In addition to science lab time, every Yokomi student has science-based literacy instruction for 45–60 minutes daily.

Techniques and practices of sound language arts instruction are enhanced through embedded literacy strategies found in the FOSS and Harcourt curriculums. The skills essential for all students to internalize and apply scientific concepts and practices, including knowledge of academic language and good reading comprehension, is enhanced by the use the selected materials and effective strategies. The frequency and spiraling design in which science academic wordsare introduced and reinforced throughout the FOSS science program also enhances the acquisition of technical vocabulary.

Academic language development is further supported through expository and informational text from Harcourt Science and the inquiry-based investigations, embedded assessments, and teacher resource materials provided in each FOSS module. Every student creates a science fair project twice a year that is based on one of the FOSS modules they have experienced. The student projects are then displayed at a special exhibition for parents. The first event held was focused on physical science using FOSS modules, such as Solar Energy, Magnetism and Electricity, Solids and Liquids, and Balance and Motion. It was very successful with over 500 parents and community members attending.

The school’s commitment of instructional time to science inquiry is quit exceptional and considered high risk by some in this era of accountability. The risk the school’s leadership and district is taking with Yokomi is based on sound research that points to evidence that explicit instruction in both academic language and reading in the context of science learning is effective in improving student achievement in literacy. Other studies show that certain practices can also improve student achievement in literacy when embedded in the natural context of inquiry-based science instruction. Based on these findings, it is evident that Yokomi English-learner students will develop significant vocabulary knowledge and conceptual understanding in science if they use the English language to solve real problems and will, therefore, learn the language. Researchers also find that English-learner students frequently do not have access to all of the courses other students do, are placed in less demanding academic tracks, or are taught by less-experienced science teachers. This will not be the case with Yokomi students. High expectations for students and a strong commitment by Yokomi Principal Steve Gonzalez to provide needed support and professional development for every Yokomi teacher is the reality. Every teacher has been provided 15–20 hours of paid training time per month and will also participate in a 40-hour intensive science content institute during summer 2006. Yokomi has also developed partnerships with the Central Valley Mathematics and Science Partnership (MSP) and the California Science Project to strengthen the professional development program by providing science content and literacy expertise.

The district and community vision for Yokomi is based on decades-long work for improving science education in Fresno and the Central Valley. A series of mathematics and science initiatives funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and the State of California over the years have identified the need and developed the capacity for enhancing science education in Fresno. Success in the past has created high expectations by the community to support teachers and students in these efforts. As a result, Yokomi students and teachers are encouraged to develop mentoring relationships with local scientists, engineers, medical professionals, and local political leaders. Partnerships with the San Joaquin River Parkway, Fresno Community Hospital, California State University Fresno, and the University of California, San Francisco, will provide opportunities to explore science and medicine and give students at Yokomi Science and Technology Magnet School a head start on their future.

For more information about the Yokomi School, contact:

  • Jerry D. Valadez, Ed.D.
    Coordinator—Science and After School Programs
    Science and After School Education Center
    3132 E. Fairmont, Building 5
    Fresno, CA 93726
    Phone: 559.248.7181