Big push for STEM

New elementary school could mean economic advances, fewer cultural barriers, but dent in district budget
Capital City Fire & Rescue Firefighter Sean Rhea helps Floyd Dryden Middle School seventh grader Kimberly Clark operate a fire hose as part of her Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) class.

American students aren’t very good problem solvers, according to global educational rankings. The solution for that issue in Juneau, advocates say, could be a new charter school.

 

Members of the Juneau School Board and proponents of a new charter school came together during a special meeting Tuesday night. For the second time this year before the board, they proposed creating the first elementary school in Alaska focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Although educators and community members began building a layout for their ideal charter school almost two years ago, it was only made public and placed before the board during an Aug. 11 board meeting. Since that introduction, board members took time to build a list of questions surrounding cost and necessity before Monday’s special session.

They weighed the pros and cons, and also attempted to come up with a dollar figure for how much it would eat into the school district’s budget.

JSB Director of Administrative Services David Means estimated a STEM elementary school in the capital city would be an investment of $140,000 to $350,000. The numbers varied because he considered several different factors, such as its location and student population.

Rebecca Soza, a STEM program manager for the Alaska Development Corporation, said it’s worth it if the elementary students receive more science education.

“Nationally, teachers spend 30 minutes a day on science,” she said. “Half of elementary science teachers in Alaska don’t teach science because their math and literacy tracks are more important.”

Marty Dean is an Auke Bay Elementary teacher leading the charge to create the school, which is being called Summit STEM Charter School. He said the need to create more opportunities for students is tied to the fact that in 2018, more than eight million jobs will be in the STEM field.

“For strictly science learning, and this is speaking personally, I have zero minutes (dedicated to science education),” he added.

Elementary-aged minority students already have preconceived notions that STEM jobs are for white adults, Soza said. The idea with this school, she said, would be to submerge them in STEM before they give up on the possibility and themselves.

If the idea comes to fruition, City and Borough of Juneau Attorney Christopher Orman said the school board would not be able to manage the charter’s schools funds as is the norm with public schools and the Montessori school currently operated by the district. The board could only hand out the funds.

Nancy Norman, an education consultant working with Summit free of charge, said a loss in funds and control by the district is outweighed by the positive affect the new school could have on disadvantaged students.

A major goal of the STEM school would be to reach a student population of 50-75 percent free/reduced lunch users. A charter school in the area already exists, but not with this specific goal in mind.

“Children in poverty don’t have the same opportunities,” Norman said.

Juneau School Board President Phyllis Carlson asked Norman and other representatives if they were concerned that they may be creating a segregated school since poorer students tend to be minorities.

Norman responded that involuntary segregation already exists. Public schools in poorer areas already draw in minorities at disproportionate numbers.

“What we intend to do is turn it into a positive agent for change,” Norman said.

Board member Barbara Thurston reminded Summit representatives that current district guidelines for student assignment by address would have to change to assure the charter school had the population, between 75 and 150, that Norman talked about.

“If we don’t change the district policy, is that a problem?” Thurston asked.

Norman, speaking on behalf of the Summit advocates, said it wouldn’t just be a problem — it would be the end of the road.

“If we don’t achieve 50 percent by year three, we close the doors,” Norman said, further clarifying the Summit officials determination to start the school on a mission to serve the disadvantaged.

Board member Brian Holst said he had doubts that what the STEM charter school hoped to achieve was unique to one setting, and that it possibly could be pushed into the public school system without creating an entire new sector.

Norman explained that pushing anything into the school system at large and forcing teachers to restructure their classrooms is an invitation to resistance that takes away from opportunities children receive when they only work with willing participants.

The board will give Summit officials another round of questioning on Sept. 15 with an opportunity for the public to give comment. Norman said she is confident if the board approves the proposal, the school will be open in fall 2016 with no objection by the state.

STEM charter school seeks to break down barriers, open doors to disadvantaged

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