Community Contribution to K-12 Education in Los Angeles

Despite multiple research studies and targeted initiatives implemented by policymakers, educationalists, sociologists, and psychologists, high rates of dropping out of schools are recorded nationwide, entailing social and economic losses. Statistical data provided by official agencies indicates the severity of this phenomenon. Although the rate of students who drop out before graduating is moving downward in Los Angeles (“LAUSD Says Graduation Rate Improved Last Year” par. 1), the school dropout problem is still one of the most burning social issues today.

The School Dropout Issue in Los Angeles

Dropouts are students who leave schools before graduating without a reasonable excuse while being enrolled. They are unlikely to have the knowledge and skills that are required for successful functioning in modern society that is driven by scientific and technological progress (Butrymowicz par. 2). In accordance with the most recent data provided by the California Department of Education, the rates of high school dropouts are gradually decreasing across the state (“State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Reports …” par. 2). The percentage of African American, American Indian, Hispanic, White, and multiracial graduates from Los Angeles-located schools has increased (Kuchar par. 1); these trends are inherent to males and females. Specifically, “For Los Angeles County Office of Education schools, the graduation rate for the class of 2014-15 was 78.7 percent, up from 77.9 percent the previous year” (“LAUSD Says Graduation Rate Improved Last Year” par. 4).

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The highest dropout rates in California, particularly Los Angeles, are consider African American students, comprising 18.8% (“State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Reports …” par. 14). Recent research studies identify such factors that induce dropping out before graduating as negative economic conditions, adverse learning environments, ethnicity-based factors, and personal traits (Schoeneberger 8). Also, interconnections between school dropout and such pernicious habits as tobacco smoking, alcohol intake, and drug consumption are considered to be the determinants that aggravate the problem (Fall & Roberts 789). Although preventive programs and initiatives have decreased the truancy and absenteeism, the issue of dropping out of schools in Los Angeles must be completely extirpated in order to ensure the beneficial equilibrium between students’ knowledge and contemporary requirements for proficiency and skills.

STEAM:CODERS: An Overview of the Organization

STEAM:CODERS is a nonprofit organization located in Pasadena, California. The organization has delivered its educational services to K-12 students from underserved and underrepresented communities in the Pasadena Unified School District since 2014 (Kuchar par. 2). The abbreviation “STEAM” stands for disciplines taught by the organization, specifically Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (“About Us” par.1). Since its foundation, STEAM:CODERS served approximately 1,200 students. Students and their parents can easily obtain the information about STEAM:CODERS’ services, schedule, disciplines, classes, locations of facilities, and so forth through the social media, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. While joining STEAM:CODERS, new students are informed about existing classes and curricula, correlate them with their intentions and skills, and select the learning mode in accordance with their academic needs.

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By understanding their students’ needs, perceptions, intentions, and prospects associated with their professional ambitions, the STEAM:CODERS team is able to devise an effective solution to the issue of high school dropout in Los Angeles. Students’ academic achievements and engagement in learning are the main variables of dropping out. The selection and application of teaching tools should be flexible, outcome-driven, and differentiated in order to correspond to learners’ individual characteristics and education needs. The consistent implementation of an individualized approach to teaching maximizes learners’ personal fulfillment in knowledge acquisition.

Teaching methods and activities conducted by the organization are aimed at creating favorable conditions for the self-realization of young individuals in the comfortable learning environment that stimulates the emergence of personal interest in various aspects of life and positive transforming attitudes towards the surrounding reality. Given the importance of well-developed skills in the information technology, the organization is mostly focused on such fields as computer science and robotics. STEAM:CODERS collaborates with such organizations as Innovate Pasadena, Kidspace Children’s Museum, Apple, SGV Codeschool, Mayseo the Magician, Coding for Treasure, Barnabas Robotics, and many others (Kuchar par. 4). Teaching in STEAM:CODERS is based on “the combination of hands-on activities, field trips and classroom instruction” (“About Us” par. 4), making the learning process engaging and attractive for K-12 students. Increasing demand for STEAM:CODERS’ services and facilities testifies to the effectiveness and topicality of the organization performance.

Reflection on the Volunteer Experience

Striving to gain a valuable experience and deeper insights into the solution of problems specific to K-12 education in Los Angeles, I joined STEAM:CODERS as a volunteer. After my online request for volunteering with STEAM:CODERS, John Malonson, who is responsible for curriculum development, contacted me and conducted a phone interview. In an amicable and catching manner, he inquired about the reasons for the application and my skills and knowledge related to the disciplines taught in STEAM:CODERS. I was invited to get acquainted with the organizational performance and the scope of my potential responsibilities. The first visit appeared to be an inspirational and challenging experience because I realized that I had to acquire more knowledge in order to assist students in their learning endeavors.

During my weekly visits to STEAM:CODERS, I assisted in teaching robotics, coding, social media platforms, graphic design, and 3D printing. Surprisingly, it was found that a great amount of available and useful information was beyond my knowledge. Therefore, while assisting in teaching, I learned a lot of new things. For instance, I realized that I knew nothing about Arduino robotics in comparison with fifth-graders. They efficiently applied this technology to create electronic devices capable of receiving signals from various digital and analog sensors. Furthermore, eighth-graders acted as real developers while using ready-made expansion boards to make temperature-monitoring devices based on the Arduino platform.

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Effective strategies and individualized methods of teaching are the STEAM:CODERS’ formula for success. Adjusting their curriculum to official standards and curricula, instructors of the organization promote successful development of skills and knowledge in all categories of students. In STEAM:CODERS, the staff develops the curriculum and plans classes grounding on the assumption that all humans are inherently predisposed to their optimal growth, ongoing development, skills’ improvements, and future achievements. In order to ensure the involvement of students with lower knowledge levels in all learning activities and address their academic needs, the teaching staff differentiated instruction and implemented scaffolding ideas.

While designing lessons, STEAM:CODERS’ teachers avoided trivial and insufficient approaches to assignments and children, implementing differentiated instructional strategies. Prior to planning lessons, STEAM:CODERS’ instructors comprehensively studied and assessed specific characteristics and educational possibilities of learners, their levels of intellectual development, individual inquiries and interests, ways of thinking, social background, and psychological peculiarities. The differentiation in teaching robotics and coding was also applied in the form of the teacher’s differentiated assistance in performing the same task. Those with a lower level of IT proficiency received more detailed instructions than more competent students. The most competent learners sometimes completed assignments without any help of the teacher and assisted persons with lower proficiency levels. Consequently, despite students’ different abilities, competencies, and social backgrounds, they were active in participating in the learning activities. Such engagement of the students in the process of learning could be observed within all the lessons attended.

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STEAM:CODERS’ instructors clearly and effectively provided the students with specific content and accelerated the acquisition of knowledge by changing classroom instruction according to learners’ intelligences, abilities, cognitive skills, and cultural characteristics. Through temporary or long-term modifications of instructions and the use of both challenging and encouraging tasks, such a differentiated approach ensured everyone’s achievement of learning outcomes, the development of students’ cognitive, creative, and communicative potential, focus on their zone of proximal development, and steady progress. Additionally, the very fact that students had diverge levels of competencies and knowledge influenced content and structure of classes. STEAM:CODERS’ instructors simplified and partially modified their lessons in order to meet students’ academic needs and correspond to their diverging skills, ways of thinking, personal characteristics, cognitive abilities, and social backgrounds.

Cooperative learning was another strategy widely applied by STEAM:CODERS’ instructors. This approach promoted partnership relations and strengthened amicable attitudes to each other within groups. Joint activities of learners influenced all processes of intra-group dynamics, including the formation of norms, values, mutual understanding, shared responsibilities, and so forth. Students’ attitudes to and perceptions of “control and identification with school may serve a dynamic purpose by initiating and sustaining a willingness to participate in academic activities and to conform to school rules and regulations, which in turn decrease the likelihood of dropping out of high school” (Fall & Roberts 795).

Furthermore, STEAM:CODERS’ instructors always took into consideration differences in their students’ degrees of readiness and knowledge while selecting and implementing forms of assessment. The instructors’ questions and assignments gradually proceeded from simple quizzes to thought provoking tasks. To measure the productivity of the students’ learning efforts and assess their level of knowledge, STEAM:CODERS’ instructors deliberately designed tests. While discussing test results, STEAM:CODERS’ learners estimated their personal gaps in knowledge and specified directions for further improvement. Therefore, the teaching strategies observed during my volunteering with STEAM:CODERS were both motivating and efficient.

While teaching students from underserved and underreported communities, the STEAM:CODERS’ instructors always consider their psychological needs, such as autonomy and relatedness. Psychosocial predictors of dropping out involve insufficient motivation of students. STEAM:CODERS’ team motivates pupils so that the young learners gain confidence, increase their efforts, and stop perceiving schools as the hostile environment. In addition to comprehensive knowledge, STEAM:CODERS’ education promotes the inclusion of learners in a variety of socially valuable and personally significant activities, develops their skills of interpersonal communication with peers and adults, prepares them for successful entry into the system of social relations, and boosts their thinking abilities.

Conclusion

Summing up, my volunteering experience with STEAM:CODERS provided me with a deeper understanding of problems related to K-12 education in Los Angeles, as well as possible solutions to the issue of dropping out. I realized that in the broad perspective, the United States’ society, general public, adolescents, and their family members would benefit from the decrease in dropping out. In order to eliminate contradictions between societal needs for well-educated professionals and high dropout rates, numerous preventive programs have been initiated across the United States. However, although initiatives and programs developed in Pasadena, Los Angeles, in general and methods implemented by STEAM:CODERS in particular have reduced rates of dropout and disengagement from high school, official data indicate the problem existence. Thus, the phenomenon of dropping out of school requires new approaches and education models that are flexible in their design and relevant to the issue severity. The involvement of community-based and nonprofit organizations, such as STEAM:CODERS, will decrease the current rates of dropping out before graduating in Los Angeles.

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