PATERSON, NJ- For nearly six decades, Ms. Jane Silverstein has brought her special brand of teaching to the Paterson Public School system. As a teacher, Chair of the Science Department, and founder of the STEM Academy at JFK, she has left a distinct mark on the lives of thousands of students. But, according to some within the school, her work has had a much more far-reaching effect.
To understand Ms. Silverstein’s possible contribution, it is necessary to look at the past two decades of educational policy within the United States, specifically the promotion of STEM based curriculums to the forefront of classroom learning.
For the uninitiated, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Proponents, including Silverstein, maintain that these technical subjects are where the future of the workforce is headed, and therefore should be prioritized in teaching.
STEM policy had become so essential to the Zeitgeist that then-President Barack Obama made it the center of his educational platform. In 2013 he was quoted as saying “one of the things that I’ve been focused on as President is how we create an all-hands-on-deck approach to science, technology, engineering, and math.”
The origination of the STEM acronym is the subject of some debate, at least in Paterson. The focus on these technical areas of study dates back years, but the acronym itself doesn’t appear until much later. Most sources, including the Encyclopedia Britannica, credit the creation of the term to American Biologist Judith Ramaley in 2001, when she worked at the National Science Foundation.
However, a simple review of local history shows that Silverstein began using the term as far back as 1994. And, just a stone’s throw from where one visionary gave birth to the American Industrial Revolution, some believe that it was Silverstein who helped prompt an educational revolution for the industries of the modern era.
At that time the Honors program at JFK only had six students, and was barely treading water. Silverstein worked with the school to restructure it as a new program to focus on the STEM subjects. First called “The Academy of the Future,” she then transitioned to the acronym “METS” but the principal at the time, a big Yankees fan, would not abide.
Thus, following a quick rearrangement, the STEM program was born. Paperwork from the inaugural class in 1995 stated its goals in two parts: To “increase the number of students interested and prepared to pursue careers in” STEM subjects, and to “prepare students for life in an increasingly complex and technological society.”
Over 20 years later, the success of the program is difficult to overstate. In 2011, the program was finally granted its own school, the JFK STEM Academy, allowing the program to almost double its students from 300 to 650. Today, it boasts a graduation rate of over 95%, and, of particular note to Silverstein, 56% of graduates also complete a post-secondary degree.
The school is now seeking to rebrand itself as “The Original STEM Academy,” in direct contention with the prevailing narrative. Administrators have done research to find an earlier use of the term, but have come up short. Research conducted by TAPinto Paterson also yielded no results.
Vice-Principal Dante Petretti actually reached out to the Encyclopedia Britannica and asked them to reevaluate their STEM entry. He sent original documents and news articles mentioning Silverstein’s program that date back years before the official entry. Their response indicated that they won’t be looking into the matter, stating that the investigation is “beyond the scope of our entry and is difficult to verify factually.”
In the meantime, Silverstein has continued on with her direct and enthusiastic teaching style she calls “hands-on.” In her AP Chemistry classroom, she belts out answers, jokes, and questions with surprising energy for a 57-year veteran of the public school system.
She worries that mainstream education is neglecting the physical experience that made her fall in love with science. “What we’re doing is taking the fun out of learning,” says Silverstein. She fears that virtualized learning and computer simulations take the joy out of science, and that the “error” half of “trial-and-error” is being removed from the classroom.
More than 20 years from the incarnation of the term, STEM, Silverstein still believes, is the “wave of the future.” She sees a failure to build interest in these subjects as a great disservice to the students. “These (STEM students) are kids who are going to find jobs, they’re going to do well in college.”
According to Petretti, one thing that separates the JFK STEM Academy from others like it in more affluent communities is that the school has to work on a “limited budget.” They work with old, worn, textbooks, perform experiments using household items like balloons and drinking straws, and are mostly limited to trips in the Greater Paterson area. Still, Silverstein insists, “we do better.”
Brian Diaz, one of Silverstein’s students, sits in the front row of the AP Chemistry class. “She’s a very unique teacher,” he says. “The very first day we started school by doing a lab. That one day I learned more than I did in all of my other chemistry classes.”
This may explain why the school is so adamant on getting credit for the STEM acronym. To recognize Ms. Silverstein’s rare blend of hard work and ingenuity.
“She did it all herself, all on her own,” says Petretti, referring to the program. “The four pieces of STEM were floating around, but someone put it all together and then made a program, a school within a school, and that just didn’t seem to exist.”
While the debate can continue as to whether she was the first to use the term or not, the impact Silverstein has had on decades of Paterson students has been clearly decided.
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