Two students participate in activities with the Harlandale STEM club. Photo courtesy of P16 Plus.

What is the perfect recipe for improving education outcomes for an entire school district?  For one kid, it may be the right person intervening at the right time. For one school, it may be a visionary principal. But for an entire school district to enact visionary innovation that actually improves outcomes, it takes a certain kind of team. In Harlandale Independent School District, that team is in place.

Thanks to collaboration among P16 Plus, the Tesoro Corp, and Communities In Schools (CIS), at the start of the 2014 school year, Harlandale ISD will become the city’s first K-12 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pipeline.

Barbara Stevens, Jim Adams, and Steven Hussain of P16 Plus receive a grant from the Tesoro Foundation.
Barbara Stevens, Jim Adams, and Steven Hussain of P16 Plus receive a grant from the Tesoro Foundation. Photo courtesy of P16 Plus.

This pilot program includes STEM curricula for gifted and talented programs in the district’s 13 elementary schools and the implementation of Project Lead the Way programming in their four middle schools and three high schools. Project Lead the Way is the nation’s leading provider of K-12 STEM programming. In Texas, it includes two weeks of intensive teacher training through the University of Texas at Tyler, and high quality curriculum to their classrooms.

One of most exciting elements of the program is the creation of the city’s first STEM early college high school, which will be housed at  Frank Tejeda Academy, until its new campus is completed. Students will be able to take classes at Palo Alto College as early as their ninth-grade year, and the STEM classes at the early college high school will also be eligible for college credit at Palo Alto.

All parties involved overwhelmingly agreed that they had discovered the winning recipe for collective impact. The ingredients: one part cooperation and flexibility, one part vision and expertise, one part sustainability, and zero parts ego and credit-mongering.

For years, Harlandale has been moving toward the idea of a STEM pipeline, according to Leslie Garza, the district’s public information officer. The reason is simple: that’s where the jobs are.

STEM Facts

Courtesy of P16 Plus:

  • From 2000 to 2010, growth in STEM jobs (7.9 percent) was three times as fast as employment growth in non-STEM jobs (2.6 percent) in the United States.
  • A STEM job is any job that requires knowledge of science, technology, engineering or math. According to The Hidden STEM Economy by Jonathan Rothwell:
    • In 2010, there were 7.6 million STEM workers in the nation, equating to about one in 18 workers, according to the Economics and Statistics Administration.
    • Many blue collar and technical jobs require STEM knowledge; therefore, 50 percent of STEM jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree.
    • STEM jobs comprise of 20 percent of all U.S. jobs.
    • There are 26 million STEM jobs in the U.S.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment in professional, scientific, and technical services could grow by 29 percent, adding about 2.1 million new jobs by 2020.
  •  According to Forbes, recent graduates with a bachelor’s degree and less than three years’ experience earn half as much than those in positions in science, technology, engineering and math.
  • People in STEM field can expect to earn 26 percent more money on average and are less likely to experience job loss , according to a release from the Commerce Department.

When the leadership at Harlandale ISD saw these statistics, they saw an opportunity to set their students up for success. At McCollum High School and Harlandale High School, there are oil and gas magnet programs aimed at getting kids plugged into the booming industry around the Eagle Ford Shale Play. Now, they are going to broaden their STEM reach just in time for HB-5 to take effect.

By beginning a STEM focus in elementary school, Harlandale ISD hopes that kids will be prepared to choose the STEM “endorsement,” a set of electives that serve as a “major” in high school.

“A lot of kids start out saying they want STEM, but they aren’t prepared for the rigor,” said Steven Hussain, P16 Plus director of community partnerships.

The Harlandale Robotics Team, photo courtesy of P16 Plus
The Harlandale Robotics Team. Photo courtesy of P16 Plus.

P16 Plus was hard at work doing what they do best: analyzing the data. Looking at best practices all over the country, it was obvious that a K-12 pipeline was the most effective approach to truly setting a child on the pathway to success in STEM fields. P16 Plus caught wind of Harlandale’s goals, and suspected that the district might be their ideal partner to implement best practices in creating a K-12 pipeline.

Carol Harle sits on both the 4-12th grade council for P16 Plus and the Harlandale ISD school board. While the council was discussing the value of a K-12 pipeline, Harle shared her vision for her district. They were already committed to slowly building the pipeline, starting with the STEM early college high school. Hearing this vision, the rest of the council and P16 Plus decided to lend their support to accelerating the process, and created a measurable pilot program they hoped could be a model for other districts in the county.

Together, P16 Plus and Harlandale ISD applied for a grant from the Tesoro Corporation, which made a $1.1 million commitment “to increase access to high-quality, educational resources and instruction, improve academic instruction and performance and better prepare students for professional and academic success beyond high school,” according to Jared Skok, executive director of the Tesoro Foundation.

Harlandale would implement STEM curriculum throughout the pipeline, and P16 Plus would measure outcomes and feedback to determine how best to scale the program across Bexar County.

The only missing piece of the puzzle was an effective after school program. CIS applied for the Tesoro grant as well, to implement STEM-focused after school initiatives.

This is where the recipe really begins to simmer. Tesoro came back to CIS and the Harlandale ISD/P16 Plus team and made a proposal. If they would partner, they would win the grant. As part of this partnership, CIS agreed to focus their after school STEM initiative in Harlandale, and Harlandale ISD agreed to provide CIS with supplies for its programming.

They were each awarded $100,000 two-year grants for a comprehensive pilot.

“We believe the willingness of all three partners to work together through a coordinated in-school/after-school approach significantly increases the potential for success of the program and the positive impact it can have on students’ career aspirations and goals,” Skok said. “Tesoro is committed to collaborating with our community partners to create cleaner, safer, well-educated communities where we operate.”

Everybody had to come to the table ready to cooperate, and they did.

“By engaging in this collaborative we will be striking at the heart of what is important to us and at the same time working to address a dearth of experienced graduates who might go on to fill the high demand in our local workforce for these STEM-related skills,” said Rufus Samkin, CEO of Communities in Schools San Antonio.

It is sadly common in the education world to see entities jockeying for the prime spot on the banner. Everybody wants their name on the project, and they are usually loathe to give up control or resources to make it happen. Not so with this K-12 pipeline.

“If you put the kids first, you can back off all that other stuff. We all came to the table with the mindset of ‘we have to make this work,’” said P16 Executive Director Judy McCormick.

Harlandale ISD has a long-standing habit of doing what it takes to partner with organizations that will do good things for their students.

“We have an underlying practice of saying ‘Yes,’” said Garza.

Saying “yes” has led to fruitful partnerships with San Antonio Museum of Art and Fernandez Honda, which offered the school a car to raffle off as an attendance incentive.

Anthony Khosravi, STEM coordinator at Halandale, credits the successful collaboration to a clean and clear division of responsibility. Everybody understands their role, and no one tries to encroach on the other’s expertise. While Tesoro has been an active and participatory partner, they are not trying to call the shots on curriculum. Harlandale ISD is not going to try to dictate how CIS runs its programming.

A K-12 pipeline would be useless if it were not sustainable. Harlandale ISD has integrated the STEM program into its normal budget so that when the grant expires, the pipeline will remain intact. The Harlandale ISD STEM pipeline represents the kind of innovation that could radically improve education outcomes in a district, and P16 Plus hopes that it will prove scalable to other districts. At the very least, their recipe for effective collaboration should be shared across the city.

*Featured/top image: Two students participate in activities with the Harlandale STEM club. Photo courtesy of P16 Plus.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.