Change will encourage students to consider careers in medicine, health care

Published in the February 1 – 14, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

The Morgan Hill Unified School District has been transforming many of its campuses into “focus academies,” and next school year, El Toro Health Science Academy will become the latest. The school board voted unanimously to approve the change at its Jan. 17 meeting.

The change at El Toro will allow many of the students to consider potential careers in the medical and health care industries, MHUSD Superintendent Steve Betando said.
“The health industry is going to be the fastest growing industry in our society because of the baby boomers (getting older). And also, as we develop more types of treatments that enable people to live longer, people are going to need more care and there’s going to be more people,” he said. “My basic personal philosophy is that when you work toward good health, it affects every other part of your life in a positive way, and how this themed approach to instruction will include all other aspects of the curriculum.”

The idea of El Toro Health Science Academy was proposed about a year ago and received input from students, parents and educators. Staff went to a health science-focused elementary school in Los Angeles to see how it successfully implemented the change. El Toro teachers Debbie Tawney, Lisa Miceli, Debbie Baker, Vicki Medaxian, Kathy Corcoran and parent home and school club member Amanda Vandercoevering created a plan focused on accomplishing the El Toro mission of “Educating, Inspiring and Empowering each El Toro Scholar.” Their design provided measured details and insights to the plan, goals and other important aspects of the focus academy.

“The staff is excited about it,” Betando said. “I’ve talked to parents who are really excited about it. The direction of this school is really generated by this community — and this community loves El Toro. So it’s going to make it an even better school.”

The district’s trend toward focus academies started with Jackson Academy of Math and Music in 2012. Two years later, P.A. Walsh became an elementary STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) academy and San Martin/Gwinn became an environmental science academy. In August 2016, Paradise Valley Elementary School became an engineering academy. Staff at Barrett Elementary and Nordstrom Elementary decided to keep their schools as traditional learning campuses.

When it launches in August, the El Toro health science curriculum will reach from T-K to fifth grade and will be intertwined with Common Core reading, math and language arts as well as science and history studies, said Principal Darren McDonald. At a December school board meeting, El Toro students presented to trustees the direction of the health academy, he said.

“We had students from each grade level present a portion of their content,” he said. “The first graders talked about the body systems, the second graders did a thing on germs, the third graders did magnets and the muscles, fourth grader did it on nutrition and wise choices, and fifth graders did a great job about talking about science as a whole but they also talked about growth mind-set instead of a fixed mindset.”

By 2020, half of the top 10 jobs will be in the health care industry, so the health science academy focus will help students consider potential careers as doctors, nurses, pharmaceutical scientists, and other medical vocations, he said. An advisory council will help guide the changes at El Toro. It will be made up of local doctors and experts from Stanford University and Kaiser Permanente. They will help in converting the school library into a health science lab which will have instructional space as well as an area for hands-on learning on health subjects. This facility remodel project will be paid for by Measure G bond money. MHUSD hopes to also develop financial partnerships with Stanford, Kaiser and other medical centers, McDonald said.

“Another thing about our lab is that it’s going to be open to the community to have blood drives and talks about cancer and all sorts of things,” McDonald said. “It’ll be a really great place to educate our community on health issues.”

El Toro will be the first elementary-level health science academy in Northern California. There is now one middle school and one high school in Northern California with a health focus, he said.

“We’re forging new territory, which is really, really exciting. The health standards are changing so we’re kind of creating what we want and what we think the kids need,” he said. “The kids are excited. Even the fifth graders who are leaving (El Toro) who gave the (board) presentation felt they are leaving a mark for their school and it’s going to be great. And the lower grades and families think it’s awesome.”

Even though they will be leaving the campus for middle school in August, fifth graders Justin Bushman, Violet Asuncion and Kaile Itow, all 10 years old, are excited to see El Toro make the change because it will make learning more fun as they learn about chemistry, biology, physics and behavioral science by studying diet and nutrition, anatomy, exercising, and physical therapy and psychology.

“We might be able to impact in the future how it affects the students here to eat healthier,” said Bushman, who is interested in exploring a career in the health sciences, maybe as a doctor.

Asuncion and Itow participated in the presentation to the school board and told trustees about the psychology of learning.

“We were talking about growth mindset and fixed mindset,” Asuncion said. “We were talking about how growth mindsets were better than fixed mindset because growth mindsets can help your mind get involved with other important subjects. Growth mindset means that intelligence can be developed. And the fixed mindset means that intelligence is static and unchanging.”

Itow described to the board how health science covers various areas of learning for the various grade levels.

“Math can also help a chemist do science,” she said.

For the students who will remain at El Toro, she gave some advice on attitude as the transition to a focus academy begins.

“For me, moving up to second grade, you might be a little nervous to have a different type of a school, but I think they might be excited because they might want to be healthier or be a chemist when they’re older or like a scientist is a good job, too,” she said. “They need to keep a growth mindset and not a fixed mindset.”

The students are excited about the lab where they can do experiments.


“Our teacher said we’re going to be making slime, so it’s going to be cool to see all the ingredients on how you can make it,” Itow said. “So it’s going to be more fun to learn about science and health.”

All grade levels from transitional kindergarten to fifth grade will be exposed to the health science topics, McDonald said.

“The opportunities are endless,” he said. “The challenge will be to keep current. With history topics, those don’t change too much. But with health science industries rapidly, we have to be on our game to make sure we’re staying with the most current information.”

Robert Airoldi