STEM program in jeopardy as four Aurora-area school districts consider withdrawing
Four Aurora-area school districts are considering withdrawing from the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School, a move that would effectively dissolve the highly touted program at the end of next academic year.
Located on the Aurora University campus, the school offers specialized science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum to about 50 third- through eighth-graders from each participating district: Indian Prairie 204, West Aurora 129, East Aurora 131 and Batavia 101.
The STEM students have performed well academically in what West Aurora Superintendent Jeff Craig called a "nurturing environment," with opportunities to engage with business leaders and experts in the field. The unique and collaborative educational model has received high praise from students and parents, many of whom say they are devastated by the prospect of discontinuing the program.
"Getting to go to this school is one of the best things that has ever happened to me, and it's an incredible gift to our district," fifth-grader Dylan Shields of Naperville told the Indian Prairie school board last week. "If you get rid of the STEM school, it doesn't help anyone, but it hurts me and it definitely hurts the quality of our district as a whole."
During a recent evaluation of its structure and purpose, district leaders found the STEM school's primary goals have garnered mixed and somewhat disappointing results since it opened in 2014, Indian Prairie Superintendent Adrian Talley said.
The facility was initially designed as a "laboratory school" to gather best practices for STEM instruction and disseminate those strategies back to the four districts.
The teachers have been mentored and provided professional development through Aurora University, he said, but the rotation of instructors is inconsistent, and the sharing of knowledge among other educators has been lacking.
The current partnership costs each district upward of $500,000 per year. District leaders are now questioning whether those resources could be better spent on implementing their own STEM programs with a broader reach.
In Indian Prairie 204, for example, officials would consider hiring a STEM coordinator and expanding educational opportunities in the primary grades, while continuing to partner with Aurora University on professional development, Talley said.
East Aurora 131 would look to roll out a similar program districtwide, Superintendent Jennifer Norrell said, and current STEM students likely would be offered a chance to stay together at the Fred Rogers Magnet Academy.
"We all kind of collectively talked about how we might be able to take all the good things that are occurring at the (STEM school) and bring those back on a larger scale and impact a greater number of students at our own districts," she said.
In a recent letter, members of the STEM school's governing board -- the four superintendents and the Aurora University president -- said they have been discussing the future of the facility since last fall and decided not to accept applications for next school year. STEM school Director Arin Carter also submitted her resignation to finish her dissertation and doctorate of education degree.
After gathering feedback from their elected school boards, the superintendents are expected to reconvene May 11 to decide whether to withdraw from the partnership. If at least three districts bow out, the STEM school would shut down after the 2021-22 academic year, giving district leaders and families time to plan.
"We don't want to pull the rug out from anyone," Craig said.
Aurora University spokeswoman Deb Maue declined to comment, saying decisions about the STEM school's future "are the responsibility of the four partner school districts."
Parents and students have been urging their public school officials to at least allow current STEM students to finish out the program, for which families were asked to make a six-year commitment at the time of enrollment.
Batavia father Michael Krause criticized the process by which district officials have communicated their options. Families were notified of the ongoing situation in a January email, which "dropped like a bombshell," he said, and he doesn't believe their concerns have since been adequately addressed.
"You cannot take a child out of a school, uproot the educational process they have grown to love and trust, and think that there won't be harm," Krause said during a District 101 board meeting in March.
"All we want is the chance for us to finish what we started. I don't think that's too much to ask."