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Partners in Education Celebrates 40 Years of Enriching Rockwood Students’ Educational Experience

Partners in Education Celebrates 40 Years of Enriching Rockwood Students’ Educational Experience

During the fall semester of her sophomore year at Marquette High, Alice Liu participated in a career shadowing day at a prosthetics manufacturing company through the Rockwood School District Partners in Education (PIE) program.

The next semester, she enjoyed a similar experience at a biomedical testing lab. During the fall semester of her junior year, she shadowed a radiology technician. Liu, now a senior, has long been interested in science, and each PIE career shadowing visit left its own unique, lasting impression on her.

“When I’m in class, sometimes I think about an experience I’ve had while I was shadowing. At the same time, I ultimately made a lot of connections when I was in the shadowing program from my classes, so it works in the opposite direction, too,” Liu said. “The shadowing experiences helped me form connections in my learning and have been really helpful for me.”

Rockwood students smile at a PIE career shadowing opportunity with the US Army Corps of Engineers.

As Rockwood students, Liu and countless others like her have enjoyed the many and various benefits of PIE throughout the entirety of their Rockwood education since the program’s inception in the 1983-1984 school year.

PIE is in the midst of celebrating its 40th anniversary in Rockwood, four decades of collaborating with staff members, families and community businesses and organizations to offer the best experiential learning opportunities possible for Rockwood students.

During the 2022-2023 school year alone, PIE’s capable crew of fewer than 20 staff members coordinated 5,863 presentations that impacted 13,992 Rockwood K-12 classes, along with 309 career shadowing opportunities and 66 summer internships for Rockwood students.

“You just don’t see other school districts that provide these types of opportunities and resources to kids throughout the district, all ages,” said Dr. Ben Hebisen, PIE coordinator since July. “To be able to have a staff like we do that work with each individual school – everything from huge events to guest speakers to job shadowing and internships – that’s just not something that’s available in other school districts. It’s very cool.”

Humble Beginnings

Former Rockwood assistant superintendent Dr. Vincent Vento, who brought Partners in Education to Rockwood.

Dr. Vincent Vento, formerly the Rockwood assistant superintendent for community education, is a strong believer in the importance of the home-school-community bond and the positive effect it has on students’ education. To that end, he helped bring three programs to Rockwood for the 1983-1984 school year: Adventure Club, Early Childhood Education and PIE.

“(The goal of PIE was) to impact the K-12 curriculum by making learning more meaningful and relevant for students, thus making the curriculum come alive,” Vento wrote in an article titled “What Is This Thing Called Community Education?” “The community became an extension of the traditional classroom.”

PIE has enjoyed four leaders throughout its 40 years: Ginny Schenck (1983-2007), Kim Litzau (2007-2019), Emanuel Young (2019-2023) and Hebisen.

During the first year, PIE programs were housed at two schools – Kellison and Stanton elementaries. The next year, all the Rockwood elementary schools were on board. The year after that, PIE expanded to Rockwood’s two high schools, including career shadowing at Eureka.

Rockwood students, staff and community members smile and give thumbs-up during a PIE school program.

Then, it was off to the races.

“Each year, through the creativity of teachers, principals and coordinators, we added large events,” Schenck said. “The concept continues because the community continues to see the relevance of connecting the students in the classroom and preparing them for careers and life experiences. And they enjoy being a part of that.”

All 29 Rockwood elementary, middle and high schools – plus the Gifted Program – have PIE facilitators to help coordinate events involving their students. PIE staff also coordinate career shadowing opportunities, an annual summer internship program for rising Rockwood seniors and special events such as Missouri Heritage Days, Civil War Living History, the eighth-grade Career Fair and STEM nights at Rockwood schools.

The goal is to offer quality experiential education experiences for all students, encompassing all grades and as wide a variety of curricular interests as possible.

“The PIE facilitators are an incredible group whose heart is in the Rockwood School District,” Litzau said. “Every single one of them do it because they care about kids, and they’re passionate about the Rockwood School District and the Rockwood community. The greatest joy of my tenure there was working with some incredible people.”

Welcoming In, Branching Out

A community presenter teaches Rockwood students about the space shuttle during a PIE classroom presentation.

Dr. Dennis Rhodes has experienced PIE’s positive impact from different perspectives during his 22 years in Rockwood. As a classroom teacher, he saw how trips to locations such as Bussen Quarries enhanced his Civil Engineering curriculum. As the current Rockwood Gifted Program director, he sees how visits to the Center for Creative Learning by roboticists, programmers – even someone who practices scrimshaw – add to his students’ school day.

“Anything and everything we need; we focus all of our curriculum on real-world problems, so they are constantly finding companies or specialists who will come in and help drive home that real-world access to the kids,” Rhodes said. “We can’t do what we do, we can’t make our curriculum as real-world as we do without the PIE department there to back it up. It’s phenomenal.”

PIE programs provide value to students by bringing community presenters into their classrooms as well as facilitating off-site learning experiences. Classroom presentations positively impact the educational process and add an exciting instructional element for students while also providing rewarding experiences for community members.

Rockwood students listen to a presentation during PIE Missouri Heritage Days.

Ballwin Elementary first-grade teacher Beverly Evans, who has utilized PIE programs during most of her 32-year Rockwood tenure, said classroom presentations help bolster her essential course outcomes and lesson plans.

“I don’t know what we would do without it,” Evans said. “They always come with something hands-on. Just to see the students’ smiles and them actively making something they can take home, share with their parents and say, ‘This is what I did today,’ they look forward to the presentations. I think of it as a classroom inside of a classroom. They’re adding to what we’re doing and helping us make learning fun for the children.”

Annual, long-standing special events also help students experience learning that adds to their curriculum outside a classroom setting. District third-graders enjoy Missouri Heritage Days at the Babler State Park Outdoor Education Center, experiencing what life was like for 19th-century Missouri settlers, and eighth-graders learn about the Civil War through historical re-enactors at the Beaumont Scout Reservation.

Rockwood students participate in a PIE Career Fair presentation from a lawyer.

The annual eighth-grade Career Fair also gives students the chance to meet with professionals from a variety of fields at one location. This year’s fair was held at St. Louis Community College-Wildwood from March 12-14 and included panelists from fields such as Engineering and Industrial Technology; Science and Research; Technology and Computer Science; Human Services; Animal Services; Media and Communications; Emergency Services; Art and Design; Fashion and Beauty; and Law and Government.

“Our kids benefit tremendously when you have outside sources helping them see from a different perspective, presenting different information or being able to have resources that then kids can research more,” said Selvidge Middle Principal Dr. Mike Anselmo. “There are a lot of different things that you can ask of PIE. They’re there for you.”

Looking Ahead
Lindsey Weber never considered herself much of an athlete; she was more of a performer. As a student at Rockwood Summit High, she even participated in an impactful career shadowing experience with a local actor.

Rockwood students in lab coats smile with community mentors during a PIE summer internship.

Now, she’s a community relations manager with the St. Louis Cardinals. When she hosts Rockwood PIE students for career shadowing experiences at Busch Stadium, she makes sure to emphasize that there are many different paths to take to the big leagues.

“It’s giving them an opportunity to see that there are hundreds of careers and opportunities in sports that might not be something that they thought of. We really try to expose them to something they may be completely surprised about,” Weber said. “I cherish the memory of my career shadowing experience. Whenever I get the opportunity to give back to somebody and give them that experience, it’s really important for me to be able to do that. When I was a student in Rockwood, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. It’s a great opportunity to be able to explore different avenues.”

As PIE moves into its fifth decade, Hebisen sees opportunities to expand and deepen Rockwood’s connections with community partners and workforce development organizations in the St. Louis area.

Rockwood PIE staff members smile at this year's Career Fair.

He also hopes to seek out new opportunities for Rockwood to partner with surrounding school districts for programs like the Parkway Spark! experiential learning program. For the past three years, PIE has also helped team Rockwood with the Special School District of St. Louis County, Pattonville and Affton to host St. Louis County Apprenticeship and Career Pathways Showcase events.

“It’s been 40 years, and it just continues to grow,” Hebisen said. “I see good things in the future, that’s for sure.”

While PIE’s scope is much broader than its initial two Fenton elementary schools, its mission remains the same as it was in 1983.

“How can we help students learn and grow? How can we bring the real world into the classroom or students out of the classroom into the real world?” Litzau said. “The more students we impact, the better our department is.”

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