Affton named a Distinguished District by Project Lead the Way for third year

District is one of 17 in country to be honored for third time


By Lucas Irizarry, Staff Reporter

For the third year in a row, the Affton School District has been named a Project Lead The Way Distinguished District, making it the only Missouri school district and one of 17 districts in the country to receive the recognition three times. The recognition is in tandem with all four Affton schools being named PLTW Distinguished Schools.

PLTW is a nationwide nonprofit organization focusing on the education of STEM programs like computer science, biomedical science and engineering.

Marilyn Allen, director of college and career readiness for the district, has been a major part of Affton’s PLTW program since its conception 11 years ago. She said the continued recognition means the district is doing something right. 

“Affton really believes in all kids. We believe all kids should have access to this and it’s a badge of honor that we’ve done this every year they’ve offered Distinguished District,” Allen said.

When Allen started in Affton, PLTW courses were only offered at the high school, but as the program has evolved so has Affton’s curriculum. 

Allen taught in Hazelwood School District before coming to Affton and witnessed difficulties with its PLTW program firsthand. The experience gave her insight on the best way to integrate PLTW among all grades — she said it isn’t common for a district to offer those courses K-12.

“We discussed this when we started offering the Gateway program and the Launch program. We really believed all kids should be exposed to this, so pre-k through seventh grade every kid takes a PLTW class,” Allen said. “In eighth grade they start choosing what path they want to go through.”

Allen was named a 2021-2022 PLTW Outstanding Administrator when Affton was recognized, one of only 14 people in the country to receive the recognition. 

Affton’s program is split into three sections — computer science, biomedical science and engineering — which diverge more and more with each grade level. Allen said Affton students stick with PLTW classes more than most other districts — losing only about 20 percent of students year to year compared to the average of around 50 percent. Around 90 percent of her students who complete three PLTW classes in high school go on to a related field.

Alum Pamela Petterchak, now a senior at Missouri University of Science and Technology, said the PLTW courses she took from middle school on helped her find a major she enjoyed. She currently majors in computer science and computer engineering.

“I really found myself enjoying the art of tinkering and problem solving. Before then I had never really considered engineering as something I might want to do career path-wise,” Petterchak said. “By the time I was a junior I found that I loved computing, programming and robotics.”

Allen said the computer science program, the newest one, was created in part due to Petterchak’s interest. Petterchak said she remembers asking about the computer science program frequently in her sophomore and junior years.

Nearly all of Affton’s PLTW courses offer some type of hands-on learning, whether it be robot building, 3D dissections or game design through coding.

Pre-K through fifth grade students learn related lessons each year, like building an animal habitat or designing a boat to cross a river. 

“We found out, because of that, when they get to middle school they are much stronger students in PLTW and when they get (to high school) there’s a lot of those basic things we don’t have to deal with anymore,” Allen said.

Middle school is used to help students decide which program they will pursue in high school. Sixth graders take “Design and Modelling,” a healthy mix of all three areas. Seventh graders are offered “Medical Detectives” and eighth graders can take “Automation and Robotics” and “Computer Science.” Allen said the set up is intentionally meant to expose students to all the options.

In high school there are capstone courses in each of the three programs where students have the opportunity to interact with professionals in their respective fields. In biomed, students design an emergency room and present it to professionals for comment and critique. In engineering, students design a project or service from scratch and present it to professional engineers, usually from Boeing or Ameren. They are also given a chance to tour those company’s facilities. 

“They think they did very well and then engineers go ‘Well have you thought about this, this and this?’” Allen said. “It’s nerve racking.”

Allen said while deciding what each year’s curriculum will look like, the children are the main focus.

“I talk to the kids, I survey them a lot so I get their pulse. I don’t care what the instructors want to teach, we’re going to teach what the kids need,” Allen said. “I’m just thrilled with what the kids have done, and that’s why we do it, is for the kids.”

Biomed is by far the largest program at the high school with around 150 students on average. Engineering is second with about 50 and computer science is the smallest at around 30 students. Allen said it’s uncommon for biomed students to be in either of the other programs, but engineering and computer science are similar enough students could take both.

Outside of school, Affton has partnered with Dreams for School to supplement its PLTW program. Dreams for School is an after school program focusing on STEM skills and 75 Affton children signed up for 35 available spots. Affton is the first Missouri district to try out the program. 

Students will meet twice a week for nine weeks, using the time to code a computer game to be presented at the end of the program.