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School district board rejects STEM School : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
School district board rejects STEM School
Board members cite multiple reasons not to participate with Aurora U, other districts

by Lyle R. Rolfe


A proposal for the Oswego School District to become one of four districts to participate in the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School at Aurora University was rejected Monday night by the school district board in a 6-0 vote.

The school district had been included in the initial plans to join with the Indian Prairie and West and East Aurora districts along with the university to form the new school, which is now under construction on the university's Aurora campus.

The $12 million school is scheduled to open this August for the 2014-15 academic year with a total enrollment of 200 students selected from the participating school districts.

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. Aurora University's Mathematics and Science Education Center used a grant from the non-profit John C. Dunham Fund in 2009 to develop a new model for the teaching of math and science education to students in a diverse urban community. The center's goal is to eventually replicate the teaching model across the country.

Had the board approved the district's participation in the STEM School Monday evening, a total of 50 third through eighth graders from the district would have been enrolled in the school. The district also would have assigned two teachers to serve as instructors at the school.

As planned, the curriculum at the Stem School will emphasize science, technology, engineering and math.

The STEM school will be funded with contributions from the participating school districts, $800,000 from Aurora University and over $7 million in contributions from corporate donors, including the Caterpillar Foundation, Commonwealth Edison, Waste Management and Tellabs Foundation.

Bill Walsh, board president, joined five of his other board colleagues in voting to reject the district's proposed participation in the STEM School.

Walsh said, "My vote was not so much against anything but it's a vote of confidence within our district and within our teachers. As I stated, our teachers can do this. They are passionate and can drive for improvement in our district."

Before the vote, he said the STEM School would help Oswego's students become more productive students. He noted that he had worked for ten years with electrical, mechanical, chemical engineers from the United State and Russia so he was aware of what it takes to compete in a global environment.

Walsh said he and Superintendent Dr. Matthew Wendt coined the phrase "World Class" for the district with the idea that their students should be prepared to compete across the world.

"I think we have a good system and our students can benefit from the hard work our staff and teachers do. We're preparing them to compete both locally and internationally," he said, adding that the district's students are being accepted into medical, mathematical, scientific and other technical programs.

"I feel we are doing a very good job-not that a STEM school wouldn't do a good job. But I feel our resources should be focused on our environment," he said indicating that the district can do for all of its students what STEM would do for only 50 of them.

Ali Swanson, board vice president, abstained on her vote.

"The teacher in me would like to see this. The school board member in me says the devil is in the details. This board of education is not on board," she said.

"I didn't have to abstain, but I worked for AU over the summer on the STEM grant and it kind of muddies the water," she said. Swanson is employed as a physics and science teacher at West Aurora High School.

"If my vote would have mattered I would have voted, but it wouldn't have. It was just a frustration for me. I would have voted in favor of it. I don't agree with their vote," she said, referring to the other six board members.

Swanson said the district will still work with Aurora University, but the relationship won't be the same. Many businesses came out and supported this, she said.

"Cross is a little mad about it," Swnason said referring to the board's negative vote and State Rep. Tom Cross, R-Oswego, who worked in the General Assembly to get legislation passes that would allow formation of the STEM school.

Swanson said she was aware how hard the West Aurora District worked on the project and said she was always able to get answers to her questions on the project from West officials.

"But they (the other Oswego School District Board members), weren't getting the same answers," she added.

Board member Brent Lightfoot said he loved the STEM School concept.

"I think it's incredible. It's the future. We need to be doing more of these types of things for our students, as our board has talked about," he said.

"Should we have STEM in our district? Absolutely. Is the Aurora University STEM School the place for us to be a partner? I don't think so," he said.

Lightfoot noted that the 50 Oswego students that would be allowed in the school would be only one per elementary school or less than .003 percent of the district's student population.

Lightfoot said he became aware of the STEM School proposals in 2010 when he decided to become a school board candidate and added that he attended a breakfast at Aurora University to hear community members and employers talk about the applicants. He recalled that a Caterpillar representative said 70 percent of job applicants don't pass a test that is given to anyone applying for any job with the company.

"That's alarming and I think that a number of our graduates who go onto Waubonsee Community College have to go through remedial math or science programs.

He said 35 percent of Oswego's junior high and 50 percent of high school students do not meet state educational standards.

"But, the kids we're talking about for the STEM school are probably not ones who will be working in the trades," he said.

Lightfoot said he would like to see Oswego start its own STEM School. They could take students from one elementary school and transfer them to another elementary school and still not fill it. This would give them one elementary building that could be used only for STEM students, he said.

"We have the teachers that can teach them, and if we did it here, we'd be serving hundreds of kids. Maybe not now, or next year, but it's goal we can set.

"I'm pro STEM but I don't think the time is quite right," he said.

Board member Matt Bauman said Lightfoot made many good points and added that the STEM proposal needs a lot more discussion.

"I like the idea of Oswego being able to provide a core curriculum STEM school with the possibility of hundreds of students rather than 50. Oswego has the talent to do this."

He said there has been a bad feeling about the many questions that had not been answered.

"Taking this to a yes vote would be irresponsible," he said.

Board member Greg O'Neil, said he agreed with his colleagues' coments but noted that Oswego had enjoyed a good relationship with Aurora University.

"Many of our teachers have received their master's degrees there to improve themselves. My issues are more philosophical. I just don't think you can improve an education system and dual track with another school system. I don't think that's the way to go. I love the idea of a science, technology, engineering and math curriculum. I know it has to be done in conjunction with Common Core," he said, adding that with the two combined, the STEM students would not be getting much more than Oswego's students.

He noted that most of Oswego's administrators have worked for the district for two years or less and said the board has placed a lot of responsibility on them. (The board also is relatively new. Three members were elected less than three years ago and four were elected last April.)

O'Neil said it would be unfair for Wendt to serve on the STEM School Board with only 50 students in the school while he has 18,000 to watch over back in the district.

He also noted that the two teachers assigned to the STEM school would be brought back to Oswego in two-four years to work with the more than 1,000 other Oswego teachers.

"It would not be a substantive change or make that much difference," he said.

He also noted that the original teachers assigned to STEM after two to four years would be replaced with new inexperienced teachers.

"One way or another the taxpayers in the state will be paying for this school," he said. He added that Oswego has been shorted $11 million in General State Aid over the past three years, money that local taxpayers have had to make up.

"I don't think our taxpayers are thinking this is a solution to the problem. I think STEM schools have their place and I think that science, technology, math and engineering is something we should be focusing on here as well."

He added that an online relationship would work better than busing 50 elementary students to the STEM school.

O'Neil said the boards of education have not been involved in the discussions.

"No one has brought us to the table and we're the ones that have to make the decision and it's very unfair how this is unfolding. So, I am not going to support the STEM school," he said.

Board member Danielle Paul said she is in favor of STEM education. But she noted a small number of students will be affected, and two or three of the district's top teachers will be sent to STEM meaning 60 Oswego students will lose the benefit of these teachers.

She said she could not make a decision based on questions that will be answered in the future and the information they have been given so far.

She noted that there was nothing in the STEM curriculum that says the students would receive classes in extra-curricular activities and subjects such as the arts.

"I think we need to focus the education efforts in our district," she said.

Paul said this board can make things happen quite quickly.

"Last year we had no online classes and now there are more than 100. We have set the direction for the district and now STEM does not fit into that direction," she said.

Board member Michael McDowell said he could not add much that had not yet been said.

He noted that Oswego has been mediocre in its STEM subjects, but added the district can teach the STEM subjects in its own schools.

Superintendent Wendt said he had no idea at the district convocation before opening school last August that they would be discussing the STEM school at this time.

He expressed disappointment that he had not taken time to educate more parents and teachers on the STEM partnership.

"I'm confident that they do not know what I know. It is a disappointment that I was not here seven years ago, four years ago or two years ago.

"It is troubling that I would disappoint people in either their thinking that I did not educate the school board enough or not do enough or respond. But at the end of the day everyone has to make their own decision," he said.

Wendt said he felt he made them as informed on the partnership as he could. He added that responses such as that will be worked out later or we'll get to that, were not a reflection on anyone's incompetence, but just the nature of the issues.

"I find it interesting that we have to explain our support for STEM. I will state that STEM is one curriculum not the only curriculum. I hope that I have either retired or decided to do something different by the time we decide that the fine arts is less than the core," Wendt added.

He said his colleagues knew how he felt about partnerships and he saw no reason why they cannot continue with them.

He noted that there are similarities between the four school districts, but added that Oswego is projected to grow.

"Whether 200 is a good or bad number for the STEM school is not an issue. The fact of the matter is that every year we will add more than 200 students to our enrollment, and we have financial pressures," he said.

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