On June 11, administrators laid out a five-year plan to redesign Oakton Elementary School by focusing on integrating STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) into the core instruction at the school through Project Based Learning. The plan encompasses the three main programs at the school: the African Centered Curriculum, the Two-Way Immersion program, and the general education classes. The redesign is intended to bring a cohesive structure to the three programs. 

Wayne Williams, Principal of Oakton, and Deborah Osher, Assistant Principal, presented the new model, which was developed by a planning team composed of Mr. Williams, Dr. Osher, four Oakton teachers and Assistant Superintendent Stacy Beardsley.

Dr. Beardsley said, “The entire Oakton team has worked hard to take on a new direction in learning and a new framing in ways to engage students at Oakton.”

The New Direction

Mr. Williams said the redesign process was initiated in September 2015 at the request of Superintendent Paul Goren to address “low overall academic performance” at the school, “low enrollment in the ACC program,” which had declined significantly in the last three years, and “a lack of cohesion between the school’s three main academic programs,” ACC, TWI, and general education.

The team recommended that Oakton maintain the three academic programs, said Mr. Williams, adding that this decision involved a “big undertaking. … We’re among very few, if any, elementary schools in our country that have two magnet programs and a non-magnet strand in the same building. Our research showed we need to hold onto all of them.”

The team also recommended that Oakton implement a programmatic model that would maintain the integrity of all three programs, and that could be measured for effectiveness over a three-year period.

Mr. Williams said they considered a lot things, such as an international bachelorette, but added that some of the models considered did not work with all three programs in the building. “We wanted to honor the vision of ACC and TWI,” he said.

The team ultimately landed on Project Based Learning, which Mr. Williams said was “not new in the world of education, but was something that was not the primary focus of our current building.” The team also decided that STEAM would be the thematic focus of instruction.

Dr. Osher said Project Based Learning will create “one umbrella instructional focus” across the three programs at the school. “Project Based Learning was selected due to its emphasis on relevant learning in a real world context and the direct connection to culturally responsive teaching,” she said.

“Research also shows us that when students connect their learning to real live experiences they are more invested and achievement is higher,” said Dr. Osher. In addition she said, “cultural relevance is critical, especially given the student demographics” at the school.

Dr. Osher defined Project Based Learning as:  “When students work on a standards-based project over a period of time, typically integrated with multiple content areas, to solve a real-world problem or answer a complex question. Knowledge and skills are demonstrated by developing a project or presentation for a real audience, also known to students as landing their project.”

Mr. Williams said the new model was implemented in the 2017-18 school year, with professional development being the focus in the first trimester, implementing STEAM with math as the anchor in the second trimester, and implementing STEAM with engineering as the anchor in the third trimester.

As an example, in the third trimester, Mr. Williams said, second-graders engaged in a project called “Catching the Wind: Sail Designs” in the third semester. Second-graders were asked to use all their scientific knowledge about wind and air and to develop their own sailboat, and see if it would propel itself across the room. Students were required to articulate their design process, take it public and receive feedback, incorporate the feedback into a redesign, and then demonstrate their sailboat to a public audience.

Perry Hollins, an Oakton teacher in the ACC program and a member of the redesign team, said, “One of the things that stood out in my mind as far as serving students of color was this idea around engagement and empowerment. They come in with a lot of success in terms of their ability and what they see themselves as, and it’s always been a struggle in the past to get them to a point where they’re just as engaged in the process as I am. With PBL [Project Based Learning], I found that it alleviates a lot of that because so much of it is student driven.”

The teacher, Mr. Hollins said, takes on the role of  “project manager.” The teacher keeps students focused and provides mini-lessons during the process and students learn and practice a skill.

Students are motivated, said Mr. Hollins, because there’s a real world outcome.

He gave an example of Project Based Learning in a literacy project, which was exploring a region of the South. He said students focused on the Great Migration, and they could pick a State and ask family members who came from the south about it. The project, he said, engaged students in geography, politics and other issues.

“From my own vantage point, I saw more of a student led environment which I always tried to create and promote in the classroom.”

Next year, Dr. Williams said, they plan to work on increasing enrollment in the ACC program, and implementing STEAM with a focus on science in the first trimester, technology in the second trimester, and art in the third trimester.

He said the team also plans to make site visits to schools with a Project Based Learning model or a STEAM focus.


Mr. Williams and Dr. Osher presented some achievement data concerning college readiness and student growth.

College Readiness: In 2018, the percent of Oakton students meeting college readiness benchmarks in reading was 44.2%; up by 2.6% from 2017. In math, the percent of students in the school who met college readiness benchmarks was 44.2% in 2018, up by 4.1% from 2017.

In 2018, the percent of Black students at Oakton who met college readiness benchmarks in reading was 35.8%, up from 29.2% in 2017. In math, the percent of Black students at the school who met college readiness benchmarks was 25.4% in 2018, up from 16.7% in 2017. 

In 2018, 43.3% of TWI students at Oakton met college readiness benchmarks in reading, and 45% in math.

On a nationwide basis, approximately 36% of the students meet the college readiness benchmarks in reading on the MAP test, and 32% in math.

The RoundTable asked District 65 administrators to provide the percent of Black students at Oakton who met college readiness benchmarks in reading and math on the Spring 2017 and Spring 2018 MAP tests. The administrators refused to provide that data.

Meeting Expected Gains: In 2018, the percent of Oakton students making expected gains in reading was 56.2%, up by 17.4% from the prior year. Dr. Osher said this exceeded the District’s average by 7 percentage points.

In 2018, the percent of Oakton students making expected gains in math was 55.4%, up 10.7% from the prior year, which Dr. Williams said was on par with the District.

The table below shows the percent of students making expected gains in reading and math on the Spring 2018 MAP test. The data in the row “D65” is for all students in the District at the grade level indicated. The data in the row “D65 Black” is for all Black students in the District in the grade level indicated. The data in the row “ACC” is for students in the ACC program at Oakton, which is primarily composed of Black students said Dr. Williams.    

Board Reactions

Board members praised the work and the results. Lindsay Cohen said she was appreciative that the Oakton team was taking a risk. Rebeca Mendoza said she was glad they included arts in STEAM.

Joey Hailpern said, “You can feel the energy in you guys talking about the work that you’re doing and how excited that you are about it.”

Candance Chow asked, “How do we ensure ongoing resources and investment in this work so they can continue the implementation and extend it? We need to keep sight on that.”

Board President Suni Kartha said the results are really exciting. “As we’re heading into budget discussions we need to make sure we’re continuing to support the work.”

Dr. Goren said the District needs to build on the organic interests of staff and faculty at Oakton that is making a difference and will continue to make a difference.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...