Maker VISTA: Boosting Capacity at Drew Charter

DCBlog_405April 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 the blog throughout 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.


From the road, you might mistake Drew Charter School for a community college or small university based on its sprawling campus. The sprawl and rolling reach continues within its walls as well: since opening in 2000 as Atlanta’s first public charter school, Drew has expanded and evolved into a bonafide epicenter for innovative teaching practices, serving more than 1,800 K-12 students. But size and reach aren’t the most impressive characteristics of Drew Charter School. What is perhaps most striking and “big” about Drew is its focus on breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty that has affected the surrounding neighborhoods.

Located near the East Lake and Kirkwood neighborhoods of Southeast Atlanta, Drew Charter serves families across diverse socio-economic groups, including youth from across Atlanta as well as the children of full time staff and members of Drew’s Board of Directors. Through this intentional cross-section of mixed incomes, the school strives for an integrated approach to opportunity, access, and diverse points of entry and connection.

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The entrance to Drew Charter School’s makerspace.

Drew had already been a STEAM/PBL school for years before partnering with Maker Ed. The school offered engineering, robotics, and other courses to students K-12. Dedicated STEAM Project Coordinator (and overall warrior woman) Courtney Bryant worked closely with the Director of PBL and various principals to ensure that students were given hands-on experiences with STEAM throughout the Drew pipeline. This team saw the importance of opening the engineering spaces and programs up to a broader audience beyond just students who were scheduled for these classes each quarter, seeking to more fully embrace the maker approach to education across their community. After receiving funding from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement to launch the development of mobile making STEAM trunks, Drew applied to the Maker VISTA Program in pursuit of ways to boost capacity and increase the reach of authentic experiences that would build 21st Century skill development.

In August 2016, Maker VISTA members Caitlan Cole and Greg Robbins arrived to serve at Drew, under Courtney’s leadership. Both were recent college graduates eager to create meaningful impact in the community—Caitlan from out of town, and Greg from within Atlanta itself. The dynamic Maker VISTA duo hit the ground running, creating new resources to support teachers and garner more support and involvement at the school. They began with newly-created STEAM trunks—stocking the carts, developing a schedule and check-out process, conducting PD sessions for teachers on their use, and documenting usage by grade level and subject. Their efforts throughout this school year to sustain and grow this component has positioned the trunks as highly popular resources for all teachers and students in grades K-8, and their success has opened up interest to potentially scale the trunks up to include high school student use in future years.

In addition to the STEAM trunks, Maker VISTA member Caitlan also created a new website for STEAM and maker programming at Drew. Featuring a vibrant layout and ever-refreshed photos, the site provides information about all upcoming events and the newly launched STEAM trunks—including detailed documentation of the contents, a photo blog of them in-use, and a wish list for donated supplies. Perhaps most importantly, Caitlan created a system on the site that allows educators to request and reserve the trunks. During the month of October 2016, the first month of the website’s existence, 1,070 unique visitors used the website to sign up for activities, reserve carts, see student work, or find school contact information.

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From left to right: VISTA Member Greg Robbins, VISTA Leader Hadiyah Shabazz, VISTA Member Caitlan Cole.

Together, the Maker VISTAs also contributed to the development of Drew’s Maker Scholars program, a partnership they helped to implement with a local maker organization, Decatur Makers, wherein students are paired with mentors who can train them in the use of equipment in the Decatur Makers makerspace. Caitlan and Greg continued to build additional relationships with local organizations and businesses as well, repeatedly hitting the streets to connect with community members one door knock at a time. These efforts resulted not only in spreading the word about Drew’s work and student successes, but also in concrete partnerships forged with Berry College, donations secured from neighborhood vendors for family maker nights, and participation and/or sponsorships for Drew’s STEAM Day, DESIGNORAMA, and STEAM Career Day events. Day in and day out, the VISTA members lead workshops, create technical guides and training resources, and strive to serve as ambassadors for both Drew and making at large, be it with Advisory Board meetings, parent coffee mornings, or in everyday interactions.

Lindsey Luczynski, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Drew, summarizes the impact Maker VISTA has had this year: “The progress we have made far exceeds the expectations we had for our own capacity and the capacity of the Maker VISTAs. The Maker programming at Drew has been an infusion of inspiration, innovation, and resources that the teachers are very excited about, and through our partnership with Maker Ed, we have been able to build on this tremendously.”

Drew Charter School and the incredibly driven and talented members of its staff have spent the last several years establishing opportunities, forums and tools for student access, success, and sustenance. The addition of Maker VISTA members enables their existing powers of stretch and reach to not just expand, but deepen and complexify. Drew’s dedication to equal, holistic, and relevant enrichment of their students and their community is evident. It is this dedication, coupled with the intention of its educators and the agency of its approach, that truly affects change. Maker Ed’s Maker VISTA members are now intricate threads woven into that tight-knit effort, and are also wholly bettered and inspired because of it.

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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 would 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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