How 12 Sto-Rox teachers brought their professional development into the 21st century

Teachers and staff of Sto-Rox are ready for a new story – not of what we don’t have, but what we are actively creating together, against all odds

The first time I met Sto-Rox HS Inquiry of Science teacher, Mr. Anthony Martini, he was working with a group of students to build a 3’ x 3’ model city with one unusual feature: a massive volcano directly in the center. Students were grouped into small “Resilience Teams” consisting of the town mayor, an engineer, a business representative, and an engaged citizen. They had one month to take their fortified city from blueprint to full-scale design, at which point the baking soda-vinegar-soap eruption of the century would test their engineering and the will of their people.

I was in awe.

The design, teamwork, craftsmanship, subject matter rivaled the most engaging engineering projects I completed as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. And it certainly didn’t match the narrative I had been told about Sto-Rox, a school on the wrong side of the digital divide.

That was in Spring of 2017, and I had no idea that in just one year’s time, a voluntary cohort of 12 Sto-Rox teachers would have come together to upskill and rethink their teaching practices with cutting-edge instruction.

At the end of the school year, Mr. Martini, HS Principal Beck, HS Librarian Julie Himmelstein and I co-wrote an application for the Center for Creativity’s STEAM Catalyst grant. From previous experience (and horror stories of other schools), we knew not to ask for a 3D printer that would likely end up in a closet. Around the same time, Sto-Rox Superintendent Dalmas received a grant through the Ohio River Consortium to develop makerspaces in our Primary Center (K-3) and Upper Elementary (4-6) buildings.

As our projects began to converge, we started asking what a district-wide initiative might look like. We knew that in our financially-challenged district, left behind by technological advances, it wouldn’t be enough to just bring high-tech into the buildings or force teachers to instantly integrate contemporary maker practices in their classrooms. And with Sto-Rox’s strong history of teacher leadership, we first needed to give teachers a chance to learn these practices and actively participate in developing the vision for 21st century learning in the district.

Sto-Rox teachers design new strategies together / Photo courtesy Brian Rhindress

Sto-Rox teachers design new strategies together / Photo courtesy Brian Rhindress

With the approval of administration, Mr. Martini stepped up as a teacher leader and we spent six hours one evening in September 2017 developing a plan to create the “AIM Cohort” – a proposed collective of like-minded teachers looking to upgrade their teaching based on the principles of Agency by Design, Inquiry of Science and Maker-practices.

Then things started moving quickly.

We invited teachers, the 12 “Early Adopters,” spanning from math to food and consumer science in grades K-12 to join the group. Many were cautiously optimistic to teach proactively for the future, rather than to the test.

We hosted a design-thinking kickoff challenge during an in-service day to build excitement and solidarity.

Mr. Martini developed a schedule to individually visit all five high school teachers, then seven Elementary teachers on alternating Tuesdays from January through April.

He developed an internal rubric to help guide teacher lessons.

We partnered with the fantastic Ashley Varrato and Meredith Bortz from Sevenzo to help document our story.

Sto-Rox attended Tyler Samstag’s excellent STEAM Catalyst grant sessions to hone our vision.

Teachers even came in on a day-off to design class projects, for which we gave out mini-grants!

And we initiated Phase I of building three makerspaces.

Completing the makerspace at Sto-Rox / Photo courtesy Brian Rhindress

Completing the makerspace at Sto-Rox / Photo courtesy Brian Rhindress

There were challenges. We got a crash course in purchasing and learned that sometimes strained relationships between vendors and financially distressed schools can result in withholding select shipments, even when funding is available. There were weeks where teachers simply did not have the time and emotional capacity to think about integrating “AIM” into their lessons. Some teachers questioned their own ability to “remake learning,” let alone that of their students.

Nonetheless, in just four months of the cohort, our teachers grew significantly and developed 20 unique projects ranging from custom re-designed lockers to functional Spanish instruments to probability sports arenas. Teacher-student interactions improved. I would walk by the makerspaces and see students who often got sent to in-school suspension, engaged and leading projects with their peers. One teacher learned that their “students can problem solve more on their own than I gave them credit for.” Another teacher in the cohort, Mr. Engelhard, is now working with the Sto-Rox IT Director to design a similar style of professional development around digital technology and Google tools.

As we move into year two of our cohort, we reflect. Innovation resources and thoughtful professional development that is responsive to teacher experiences are sorely needed in low-income school districts. The conditions were right in Sto-Rox to catalyze such an initiative by 1) partnering with CISPAC to provide a full-time site coordinator to develop meaningful partnerships and programs and 2) identifying teachers (e.g. Mr. Martini) who go above and beyond what is required. But this kind of innovation coordination should be a full-time job, and financially challenged school districts can’t afford it.

It will take a series of targeted, long-term, sustainable investments to maximize this initiative, and to ultimately correct the historical inequity in public schools that serve learners in poverty, learners of color, and learners in underserved geographies.

What last year teaches us is that the students, teachers and staff of Sto-Rox are ready for a new story – not of what we don’t have, but what we are actively creating together, against all odds.

Peer-to-Peer Learning in Sto-Rox: A Case Study

So how did Sto-Rox teachers actually go about leading their own professional learning program? In partnership with Remake Learning, Sevenzo worked alongside Sto-Rox educators to capture their experience in a case study other educators can learn from.

Visit to download the case study.

Published September 19, 2018

Authored by:
Brian Rhindress
Brian Rhindress

Brian Rhindress is a Sto-Rox Site Coordinator for Communities in Schools of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County (CISPAC), a solutions-based organization that develops partnerships which coordinate programs, services, initiatives and interventions to build capacity in schools that need them most. This is the second year of a two-year partnership between CISPAC and the Sto-Rox School District.