Photo by Ty Swenson
The Delridge-facing entrance at Boren, soon to be transformed into a kindergarten through 5th grade STEM school. The district will renovate the building and remove the graffiti before the school opens in September, 2012.

Parents' conundrum in choosing new K-5 STEM elementary

For West Seattle parents with children preparing for kindergarten to 5th grade in 2012 there is a new, intriguing option in the K-5 STEM program starting in September, 2012, at the Louisa Boren Building on Delridge Way S.W.

The problem is one of timing: while the school’s ultimate curriculum, staff and amenities are yet to be solidified, Seattle Schools’ open enrollment for option schools such as STEM ends on March 9 – only days away (although parents can apply after that date, but first crack and a best chance at getting in is during open enrollment). It’s a gamble of sorts: buying into the theory of STEM rather than an established program with a brochure that answers all of the questions.

If a parent applies for STEM and their child is accepted, that child will lose their spot at their default public school. If it becomes obvious the new school isn’t a good fit, the ability to switch back is based on available space … and with our crowded schools that is no guarantee.

“I get that it is frustrating not to have all the information completely and I get that it is scary and you might not want to take the chance,” Cathy Thompson, assistant superintendant for teaching and learning as Seattle Schools, said at a March 1 meeting with parents “If you feel like you don’t want to take the chance, then you keep your kids in the school they are assigned to, you watch what is happening and stay in touch … you can look at more information, you can talk to the principal and you can make that decision. There is that risk that if the school fills ... (no spots will be available).”

What is STEM?
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. As the name suggests, students focus in on these disciplines with a lot of project-based learning, becoming little scientists. Cathy Thompson, has orchestrated two public meetings and assured parents the less technical foundations of art and writing are still taught, but often through the prism of STEM subjects.

Seattle Schools sells the STEM theory as “engaging and interactive” and “a natural fit for elementary age students who have incredible imagination and natural curiosity about the world and how it works.” They continue to say mastering STEM disciplines early on prepares children for success in middle school, high school and college.

Eventually, the district says, it will give them the upper hand landing good jobs in an increasingly high-tech economy: “Students who have the skills to become scientists, technology experts, engineers, and mathematicians will be prepared for the exciting economies and careers of the future.”

The massive turnout for two recent public meetings in West Seattle illustrates an obvious interest in the STEM system, but the question and answer sessions brought out well-deserved anxiety for parents considering committing their children to the school.

So what is known and what is still up in the air?
In the known, a principal has been chosen. Dr. Shannon McKinney will take the helm – a principal, according to Thompson, with a background in STEM subjects and a track record of turning around under-performing schools. She has 22 years of experience in education as a teacher and administrator and a doctorate in education from the University of Arizona. McKinney is moving to Seattle from Arizona in early March and a meet-and-greet is scheduled for the public on Tuesday, March 13 (6:30 to 8:30 p.m.) at Madison Middle School.

Two wings of the currently dilapidated Louisa Boren Building will be renovated and cleaned up using education levy dollars, adding modern classrooms and computer and science labs scaled for the very small (K-2nd grade) to the getting-bigger (3rd through 5th). Two playgrounds, scaled for the same breakdown in size, will also be added (although whether they end up where the portables are now or up on the playfield is yet to be determined). Renovation and construction is expected to be finished by the end of August, Thompson said.

The school will stay at Boren for at least two years and could move elsewhere after that (it will stay in West Seattle) depending on popularity.

Bus transportation will be provided for any children living in West Seattle and district administrators said that likely means they won’t see many applications from families living beyond the peninsula.

A Design Team made of up six parents, six staff and three community members will be decided upon in early March and start meeting soon thereafter to start creating the school from the ground up, including curriculum, mission/vision, program features, etc.

Special needs accommodations will be available, just like any public school.

There will at least be one teacher for every 26 to 28 students (the district’s established minimum, depending on the grade).

Kids will have at least 100 minutes of physical education a week, the minimum set by the district.

What if we have siblings or twins? You can link their applications, so they only go if both are accepted.

While established schools have tie-breakers for acceptance like a sibling link (a brother or sister is already attending the school) or geographic preference, K-5 STEM is brand new so it will come down to a computer-generated lottery.

Beyond those points, everything else falls into the “to be determined” category. At the March 1st public meeting at Denny Middle School, parents’ hands shot up when the Q&A began.

How many kids will be allowed in? Undetermined at this time.
Will there be mixed-age classrooms? Depends on how many people apply.
Will there be STEM pathways available so the kids can continue with their focus into middle and high school? Madison has shown interest, but nothing is set.
What will the teacher staff look like? Seattle teachers get to apply first and those with STEM backgrounds will have an upper hand, but none will be hired until Dr. McKinney arrives. The new staff will be trained in STEM teaching approaches over the summer.
Will tech businesses be involved? Yes, companies like Boeing have already shown an interest in getting involved, but just how is unknown.

Thompson reiterated as the March 1 meeting wrapped up that she understood the tough decision before parents considering STEM.

“That is a risk (to wait),” she said, “but I also understand for many of you it probably feels like a risk to bring your child into a school that we are still figuring out. So I can’t tell you what to do, but I can encourage you to get as involved as possible because it’s pretty exciting.”

The district has many more issues covered in an ever-evolving FAQ found here.
You can visit the Seattle Schools STEM page here.

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