STEM school opens in fall

STEM school opens in fall

March 22nd, 2012 in Opinion Times

Space in the rear of this former Olan Mills building will be the site of a STEM school at the Chattanooga State campus. The Wacker Institute is already operating in the front of the building.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

School officials are moving quickly to renovate a site, hire a principal and staff and start the student application process for Hamilton County's new science, technology, engineering and math high school. Such speed is necessary if the STEM school and an associated hub to house its business and community partners are to be operational at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year.

Much of the planning for the school and an adjacent STEM hub run by the Public Education foundation, is in place. That work was part of the successful application to the state that earned a $1.85-million grant to open the facilities. The award, announced by Gov. Bill Haslam earlier this week, is funded by a portion of Tennessee's $500 million federal Race to the Top Award. The grant should help the school system here fulfill the pressing need for technologically skilled graduates. Currently that need is not met.

Many current and prospective employers here say that it is difficult to fill present needs for a skilled workforce. That strongly suggests that future expansion of large-scale employers like Volkswagen, Wacker and others could be put on hold if the pool of qualified workers is not expanded. It indicates, too, that attracting additional high-tech industry with well-paying jobs and benefits will be difficult if the skill level of regional workers is not improved.

The new school -- one of five of its type in Tennessee -- won't solve that problem alone, but it should help. STEM schools employ inventive teaching methods, the latest in technology and innovative community partnerships to produce graduates better able to meet the demand for skilled workers and the rigors of higher education. Those are admirable and necessary goals.

The school will be located in the former Olan Mills building next to Chattanooga State's main campus. Renovation there will begin soon. Superintendent Rock Smith said the school system is already working to identify and hire staff. That's a good start to what will be a busy few months before the school opens.

The planning and work has not gone unnoticed. The STEM school has attracted widespread interest. "I'm getting calls every day from parents," said Smith.

Those parents obviously see the promise of the new school, which will admit a class of 75 ninth graders this fall and add a class each year until it reaches capacity of about 300 students. Given the relatively small number of slots, the admissions process could be contentious. Officials, though, have taken steps to make the selection process as equitable as possible.

To that end, Smith says, each county high school will be allotted a number of STEM slots, depending on that high school's enrollment. Applications for the fall will be sent out this week. If, as seems likely, there are more qualified applicants than seats, a lottery will be used to fill the class.

The problem with that, of course, is that some otherwise qualified students could be denied a place in a school that is widely perceived -- and often proved -- to be a cut above other county schools. When that occurs, an understandable public outcry about the fairness of admission policies to magnet and other specialized schools can occur. Long-simmering issues at CSAS and the more recent controversy of who can and who cannot attend the Normal Park School are examples.

The STEM school undoubtedly will be prove to be a valuable addition to public education here. Its presence, though, raises anew the question of whether or not the school system can provide the bulk of students not enrolled in specialized schools an education and training equal to those who are.