When Nikki Bailey was named principal of Rivermont Elementary last summer, she knew something needed to be done to combat the school's dwindling enrollment.
"I knew if I wanted to get more kids I needed to do something different," Bailey said.
And this year the school, which is the smallest in Hamilton County, has done just that, adopting a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, arts and math, known as STEAM. The school is in the process of building two STEAM labs, providing teachers and students with spaces to tinker, create, build and learn together.
In 2013, Rivermont had more than 400 students. Now enrollment is about 240 kids, and a majority of those students come from low-income families, according to state data. Bailey said she knows there are a lot of young families in the school's zone and hopes this new focus will encourage parents to send their kids to the neighborhood school.
Since announcing plans for the STEAM lab last fall, Bailey said she's seen a swell of community support for Rivermont, which is located on Hixson Pike. Strauss Construction and COGENT Studio are building and designing the STEAM lab for free, and the school has raised more than $7,000 to stock the labs with things such as microscopes and art supplies.
"It's been amazing to see the community support," Bailey said.
At Rivermont, Bailey has worked to create a culture where everyone — teachers and students — are learning, and classes already are implementing STEAM into the curriculum.
"Teachers need to be able to be creative and not teach inside a box," Bailey said. "And the kids don't even know they're learning when they're this engaged."
Christine Loveridge, who leads the STEAM lab at Rivermont, works with teachers to integrate hands-on, project-based learning into their classroom instruction.
The STEAM lab helps students learn how to problem-solve and think for themselves and as a group, which are skills needed to be successful in life and a career, Loveridge said.
"We need to give our kids a chance to start developing these skills now, so as they continue through school they are strong thinkers," she added.
Kids and teachers both are enjoying the STEAM focus, Loveridge said, as it's an engaging and creative approach to learning.
Earlier this month, a class of first-graders filled the school's science lab, working in groups to get billy goats safely across a bridge and away from a troll. The kids had just read the book "Three Billy Goats Gruff," and the science lesson was a way of bringing the story to life.
Each group of students had supplies and were told to find a way to safely move a billy goat, which was represented by a small marble, across a wooden bridge.
While one group of students attempted to build railings on their bridge to protect the marble from rolling off, another group worked to build a slingshot to throw the marble across the bridge.
"I have a spoon and a rubber band," said Izzie Barwick to her classmates. "See if you can maybe shoot it over."
But Alayah Jones had a different idea. She wanted to put the marble in a balloon and roll it across the bridge.
"The balloon will keep the billy goat safe from the troll," Alayah said.
Rachel Womack, another first-grade student, said she likes it when the class goes to the lab.
"It's really fun," she exclaimed.
For Evelyn Harris, a local pastor and a parent of a student at Rivermont, she said the direction the school is going is exciting.
Harris' daughter comes home from school talking about the aquaponics greenhouse the school is planning, how humans relate to the environment and robotics.
"I'm pretty impressed my fourth-grader is thinking about these sorts of things," Harris said. "STEAM is becoming a part of the school's culture everything they're doing is reinforcing this."
Looking ahead, Harris hopes more people in the school zone realize the great things taking place at the school and get involved in its growth. Strong schools improve communities, Harris said, and strong communities improve schools.
"I'm really excited about where Rivermont can be in the future," she said.
Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.