Building Capacity and Connections at Bethune Middle School Through Maker VISTA

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April is VISTA Month at Maker Ed, during which we are shining light on the work being done by our Maker VISTA program partners and members, and sharing stories of impact, service, and transformation occurring everyday. Be sure to check out all of our posts this month, as we offer insights, resources, and rich perspectives from a diverse array of communities and maker landscapes. Also, click here if you are interested in serving as a Maker VISTA member at one of our partner sites for 2017-2018.


Ten to fifteen years ago, mention of a middle school in South Central Los Angeles might have conjured images plucked from newsreels, music videos, and stereotypes. In the years since, the neighborhood has undergone a pronounced transition from a traditionally black community to one rooted in Central American heritage. As shops, sounds, and streets shifted, one structure remained quite solid: Mary Mcleod Bethune Middle School, sturdy in its brick and concrete pillars, tucked right off the historic 110 at the intersection of Florence and Main.

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Students at Bethune compete in a robot competition.

As the neighborhoods and the neighbors themselves changed, so too did the focus inside Bethune. With the support of Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP) coordinators and coaches, college and career pathways were carved with emphasis, goals set as focal points on the horizon with intersections of investment, concentration, and potential to consider and navigate along the way. To create a physical space to curate, channel, and explore these avenues of exploration, Bethune came to rely on its first-ever Maker VISTA member, Kira Watson.

Bethune Middle School began a partnership with Maker Ed’s Maker VISTA program through LAEP in 2015. Kira arrived on campus, serving under former community school coordinator, Jennifer Reid, and began the work of laying a foundation for making. She forged partnerships with nearby University of Southern California and California State University Long Beach, launched and organized the school’s first makerspace, and made herself an invaluable resource on campus. In true VISTA form and in alignment with the greater VISTA mission, Kira worked behind the scenes to build, boost, and foster Bethune’s capacity for making.

But just as critical to building the site’s capacity for making was the need to build the students’ capacity to see themselves as makers. Along with the external neighborhood shifts and the internal curriculum shifts, there was a slower-moving shift in mindset, in risk-taking, in safe-space cultivating. For students (and parents, and teachers) unfamiliar with maker-centered learning, the transition into tinkering, tool and equipment use, even open play, was uneasy, and accompanied by the vulnerability, intimidation, and confusion that can come along with any new mindset. For every 7th grader who dove into making, there was an 8th grader, a parent, a math teacher who hesitated, shied away, or disengaged. In day to day school life that can be rife with struggles, upheavals, changes, or more pressing obstacles, adapting to a new mode of learning could be overwhelming.

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A replica of the Mars Rover made by Bethune students.

So, in her service as a Maker VISTA member, Kira also worked to create a safe space and an organic, approachable fit for making. These efforts were vital for developing community buy-in, for relationship building, for connecting maker-centered learning to authentic interests and needs of the students. In essence, Kira took on the work that Maker Ed strives so much to emphasize: she met the school, and each student she encountered, where they were at.

One story of Kira’s impact stands out in particular. A parent-child team started participating in a program that Kira started in partnership with USC, called the Sea Grant Parent Child Education Program (PCEP). After a few sessions, the student and his mother began to identify PCEP as an activity reserved especially for mother-son bonding time. At the end of the program, all teams were asked to provide feedback. Parent and child both credited this opportunity with empowering them. The mother found the program provided her with skills essential to helping her son navigate his academics, and knowledge that made her less apprehensive about assisting him with science homework. The student expressed that participating in the program taught him about new career paths in marine biology and oceanography, fields that he may not have been exposed to during this phase of his academic career had he not participated in the program. The pair shared that outside of school, they continue to explore environmental science, marine biology, and water conservation together. This program, and Kira’s efforts, proved transformational for student and parent alike.

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Students at Bethune work on a community garden.

Building upon Kira’s work and Bethune’s investment in maker-centered learning, this 2016-2017 Maker VISTA program year expanded to include the addition of another Maker VISTA member on-site. Michelle Tersolo and Corina Penaia began serving in 2016 under the guidance of LAEP’s Molly Heber, and later the supervision of community school coordinator, Mackenzie Scott. Using Kira’s foundations as catalysts, the new Maker VISTA members got right to work expanding partnerships in the community, collecting and curating resources for the makerspace, and providing their own unique spirit and energy towards capacity building at Bethune.

This year, Michelle and Corina secured a grant from Girls Build LA, an initiative run by the LA Promise Fund that challenges young women from public middle and high schools in LA County to use STEM principles and 21st Century learning skills to effect social change. The $3200 grant award provided funding for a group of 10 female students from Bethune to create a health and wellness-focused project, and compete against other schools in the area. Currently, the students are completing the remainder of their project and will be presenting their results to the Girls Build LA board and panel. If the team places in the top three in their category, the team would be awarded a $50,000 scholarship. The significance and potential impact of that award is plain. The mentorship, support, and confidence that Corina and Shelly have cultivated in that student group and within the school may sometimes be less visible, but is inherently as valuable.

Just as the community and the school itself has evolved, so has the work of the Maker VISTA members on campus—sometimes with speedy success, and sometimes with hiccups and challenges. But through partnerships and perseverance, our Maker VISTA members stand on the shoulders of those who came before them in order to amplify impact—for students, schools, and communities alike.

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Click here for more stories about the impact of our program and the service of Maker VISTA members from across the country. Be sure to sign up for the newsletter to stay updated on all Maker VISTA happenings. If you’d like to serve as a Maker VISTA or know someone who would, click the “Apply to Serve” icon above to learn more.

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