published Friday, September 30th, 2011

Hamilton County moves on STEM school


District officials and school board members will continue to meet with business and higher education leaders. The district must submit a letter of intent by Oct. 21 to apply for the grant. Applications are due by Dec. 30, and grant winners will be announced in January.

Hamilton County will move forward with the grant application to open a new science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, school. But school board members caution that more details need to be ironed out before committing to the project.

School board members met with district officials, business leaders and representatives of Chattanooga State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in a work session Thursday evening. Officials discussed an opportunity to receive a nearly $2 million grant for a STEM school with the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network.

The network, a partnership of the Tennessee Department of Education and the Battelle Memorial Institute, an independent research and development organization, is modeled after a similar program in Ohio and funded by Tennessee's federal Race to the Top grant.

The network is considering funding one school in East Tennessee and another in West Tennessee -- Nashville and Knoxville already operate network STEM schools. But to qualify, Hamilton County Schools would have to partner with higher education institutions, local businesses and philanthropists.

And school officials will have to act fast.

After first receiving detailed information in August, the district must apply by Dec. 30 to open a STEM school next fall.

School board members were hesitant about the project's funding and sustainability. The grant would provide $1 million for a school and $850,000 for an associated "hub" to house partnering organizations.

"It looks like a lot of money," said Superintendent Rick Smith. "It's not."

To operate a STEM school, Smith said the district likely would have to use an existing facility -- either a current school or another site, possibly at Chattanooga State or UTC. But even then, he said $1 million is probably not enough to run a school fully.

Board member Jeffrey Wilson questioned the overall cost to the district, but said a STEM school is definitely a worthy addition to the school system.

"I think this whole thing is necessary -- you're either in or you're out," he said. "But you've got to clear up some of the specifics."

Board member Rhonda Thurman questioned whether a STEM school would jeopardize other school programming. She said the district has experienced failed grant programs in the past.

"I've been through a lot of these things that sound wonderful in the beginning," she said. "But I'm going to have to see a whole lot more about this and see the bottom line."

Smith said concerns would be worked out through the next two months as leaders find a possible site and design a curriculum for the proposed school. He said uncertainty over funding shouldn't be a deal breaker.

Officials said a local STEM school would lead to a better-trained workforce, something business leaders want. Smith envisions a school that incorporates the latest technology and integrates internships, virtual classes and college and university course work.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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